A diver discovered a 1,800-year-old Roman shipwreck off the coast of Israel, containing 44 tons of artifacts, including Corinthian columns adorned with ornate vegetal patterns.
Although archaeologists were aware of the shipwreck’s existence, they did not know its precise location because it had been hidden by layers of sand. Recent storms, however, appear to have played a role in revealing the sunken vessel.
The diver, Gideon Harris, made this significant discovery and promptly reported it to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
Koby Sharvit, the director of the underwater archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), mentioned in a statement released on Monday (May 15, 2023) that this unexpected exposure of the cargo was likely aided by the turbulent weather conditions.
Oldest sea cargo wreck
The ship from the ancient Roman era had an extraordinary cargo of 44 tons (40 metric tons) of marble. This precious load included Corinthian columns embellished with intricate vegetal designs, as well as capitals, which are the uppermost part of the columns.
Additionally, there were marble columns measuring approximately 20 feet (6 meters) in length. Remarkably, this shipwreck represents the oldest known instance of a sea cargo wreck in the Eastern Mediterranean, as stated in an official announcement.
Analysis of the components found
By carefully analyzing the size of the architectural components found at the site, experts were able to estimate the dimensions of the original merchant ship. Their calculations led them to conclude that the vessel had the capacity to carry a minimum of 200 tons (181 metric tons) of cargo.
Based on their observations of the ship’s remains and their understanding of maritime history, archaeologists believe that the vessel encountered a fierce storm while navigating the shallow waters.
In a desperate attempt to prevent the ship from running aground, the crew dropped anchor. This decision, however, proved insufficient to save the ship from its fate.
“Such storms often blow up suddenly along the country’s coast,” Sharvit said, “and due to the ships’ limited maneuvering potential, they are often dragged into the shallow waters and shipwrecked.”
The debate regarding Roman’s import
For a long time, archaeologists have engaged in a heated debate about whether the ancient Romans imported fully crafted architectural elements or if they transported partially finished pieces. This recent discovery finally settles the argument, providing valuable insights.
It reveals that the marble pieces found in the shipwreck were not complete structures but rather originated from the quarry as basic raw materials or partially worked artifacts. They were then shaped and finished at the construction site.
The craftsmanship involved in the final stages of creating these architectural elements was carried out either by local artists and artisans or by skilled individuals who were brought to the site from other regions. This practice mirrored the approach taken by specialized mosaic artists who traveled from place to place, working on commissioned projects.
Although the precise intended location of the marble columns remains uncertain, experts speculate that they were intended to embellish an impressive public edifice. Possibilities include a grand temple or a theater, where these majestic columns would have contributed to the overall splendor of the structure.