Israeli Swimmer Discovers Undersea Treasure of 1800-year-old Roman Marble
While swimming off the north-central coast of Israel, Israeli Gideon Harris made a historical discovery—tons and tons of marble cargo from a Roman ship that ran aground in a storm 1,800 years ago. This is the first known discovery like this in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea.
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) had known there was a shipwreck in the area, but weren’t able to locate the precise location, until Harris spotted and reported the ancient deposit that winter storms this year had uncovered.
“We have been aware of the existence of this shipwrecked cargo for a long time, but we didn’t know its exact whereabouts as it was covered over by sand, and we could, therefore could not investigate it,” said Koby Sharvit, IAA director of underwater archaeology. “The recent storms must have exposed the cargo, and thanks to Harris’ important report, we have been able to register its location, and carry out preliminary archaeological investigations, which will lead to a more in-depth research project.”
The valuable cargo weighed in about 44 tons and pieces of mostly unfinished marble destined to be carved and set to adorn a temple or theater in Israel or the surrounding area. Among the treasure at the bottom of the sea were Corinthian capitals with floral patterns, 20-foot-long marble columns, and partially carved capitals. The abandoned haul lies about 660 feet offshore near Netanya.
Archaeologists can tell by the location (in shallow water) and the angle of the marble cargo on the ocean floor that the large Roman ship must have encountered a sudden storm (common to the area), and the sailors dropped anchor hoping to prevent the ship from running aground.
“Such storms often blow up suddenly along the country’s coast and, due to the ship’s limited maneuvering potential, they are often dragged into the shallow waters and shipwrecked,” Shavrit said. “From the size of the architectural elements, we can calculate the dimensions of the ship. We are talking about a merchant ship that could bear a cargo of at least 200 tons,” he said.
Harris received a good citizenship certificate for his efforts to report the find. Harris’ discovery also helped settle a long-running “chicken and egg” debate between land and sea archaeologists—did the Romans have the marble fully carved and then exported it, or was it quarried, partially carved, transported, and then finished by artisans onsite?
“The find of this cargo resolves the debated issue, as it is evident that the architectural elements left the quarry site as basic raw material or partially worked artifacts and that they were fashioned and finished on the construction site, either by local artists and artisans or by artists who were brought to the site from other countries,” Shavrit said.
Shavrit also said that the marble likely came from Greece or Turkey and was “destined for one of the ports along the southern Levantine coast, Ashkelon or Gaza, or possibly even Alexandria in Egypt. These fine pieces are characteristic of large-scale, majestic public buildings. Even in Roman Caesarea, such architectural elements were made of local stone covered with white plaster to appear like marble. Here we are talking about genuine marble.”