Swimmer Stumbles Upon 1,800-Year-Old Marble Columns From Shipwreck Off Israel’s Coast

The artifacts help settle an unanswered question about ancient architectural materials

Column capital
One of the marble capitals found by swimmer Gideon Harris Israel Antiquities Authority

Several weeks ago, Gideon Harris dove into the waters of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel. About 13 feet below the surface, he stumbled upon 1,800-year-old marble columns. 

In a statement last week, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced the discovery of the Roman-era artifacts that sank with the merchant ship carrying them. Though the agency knew that the shipwreck existed, its exact location had previously been a mystery.

“Recent storms must have exposed the cargo, and thanks to Gideon’s important report, we have been able to register its location,” says Koby Sharvit, director of the underwater archaeology unit at the IAA, in the statement.

Diver measuring
Divers measuring one of the columns in the shallow waters off the beach of Beit Yanai, Israel Israel Antiquities Authority

Sharvit says that the trove likely came from somewhere near Greece or Turkey, and it may have been heading for a port such as Ashkelon, Gaza or Alexandria. Caught in a storm, crew members probably dropped their anchor to save the ship from grounding itself in the shallow waters.

The artifacts include partially carved capitals, which are the decorative top sections of columns. Some are large and heavy, while others are smaller. 

“It’s possible—likely even—that we have a double cargo: one ship carrying cargo for two separate buildings or destinations,” Sharvit tells Haaretz’s Ruth Schuster. “The small capitals may have been for a smaller building and their carving was finished. The big capitals are still quite raw. The shape is there but they’re not done.”

Part of what makes the discovery so exciting is the material. Sharvit says that because the artifacts are made of marble, they were likely headed for a “large-scale, majestic public building.” 

Capital example
Researchers were excited to find that the columns were made from genuine marble. Israel Antiquities Authority

“Even in Roman Caesarea”—a nearby ancient port city—“such architectural elements were made of local stone covered with white plaster to appear like marble,” says Sharvit in the statement. “Here we are talking about genuine marble.”

Additionally, he says that the discovery settles a long-debated question: Were architectural objects like columns sculpted into their final form at their original locations, or were they completed at their final destinations? This discovery suggests the latter, as many of the columns were unfinished.

Roman rule of the region began in 63 B.C.E., when Pompey the Great conquered and unseated the king of Judea. Experts dated the newly discovered columns to the mid-second century C.E.

Israel’s coastline on the Mediterranean Sea has long been an intriguing site for researchers. In 2016, for example, divers made an accidental discovery under similar circumstances in the waters of Caesarea National Park, about 35 miles north of Tel Aviv, where they found a 1,600-year-old shipwreck full of bronze artifacts. Just last summer, a 2,000-year-old Roman coin etched with zodiac symbols was found in the waters near Haifa.

Sharvit tells the Times of Israel’s Amanda Borschel-Dan that the IAA will soon begin an excavation of the site in collaboration with students from the University of Rhode Island. He hopes to find other artifacts, such as coins from the era. Even more exciting would be remains of the boat itself, which researchers have not yet located.

Harris, who reported the discovery to the IAA, received a certificate of appreciation for good citizenship for the find.

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