We all, as children, spent time furnishing our imaginations with the fabled antiquities of lore. Some spend their entire lives searching for these treasures and discover nothing. Others, for whom this history has a less than immediate relevance, make grand archeological finds without planning or effort or want.
Recreational divers Ran Feinstein and Ofer Ra’anan fall into the latter category. Last April, the two friends were leisurely exploring the waters off the Israeli coast when they accidentally discovered a 1,600-year-old shipwreck and its immense cargo.
Ra’anan remarks that “it took us a couple of seconds to understand what was going on,” but after taking a few moments to appreciate the gravity of their find, they picked up the phone and alerted the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
Archaeologists later declared the store of Roman objects the largest such discovery in Israel in three decades. The IAA wasted no time in sending their own divers to investigate the wreck.
It seems that in recent years a great volume of the sands of the seabed have been whisked away by oceanic currents, meaning that artifacts lost for over a millennium are finally being revealed.
The IAA conducted several investigative dives in the weeks following the initial report. The catalogue of items has only continued to grow. Among the hoard are a bronze lamp bearing an image of Sol the sun god, a statuette of Luna the goddess of the moon, and statues of animals.
The most notable of the artifacts, though, may be the two 45-pound metallic clumps comprised entirely of ancient coins — thousands of coins that were apparently fused together, forming the shape of the pot they were held in.
Featured on some of these coins is the image of the Roman emperor Constantine. Constantine is remembered for the Edict of Milan in 313 AD that granted Christianity legal status within the Roman empire. Other coins depict ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire Licinius, a man who often stood in opposition to Constantine but also signed the edict.
Jacob Sharvit and Dror Planer, directors of the IAA’s Marine Archaeology Unit, believe that “the location and distribution of the ancient finds on the seabed indicate that a large merchant ship was carrying a cargo of metal slated for recycling, which apparently encountered a storm at the entrance to the harbor and drifted until it smashed into the seawall and the rocks.”
Anchors amid the wreckage allude to a last ditch effort to rein in the unwieldy vessel before it met with the rocks. It appears that all of the anchor lines snapped.
The objects then sank to the bottom of shallow waters where they were covered with sand. “Metal statues are rare archaeological finds because they were always melted down and recycled in antiquity,” said Sharvit, and it was the sand that protected them from this recycling process.
The benefits of this sandy refuge are twofold. Incredibly, the sand preserved the items, making them, according to Sharvit, appear “as though they were cast yesterday rather than 1,600 years ago.”
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