A few weeks ago, Gideon Harris, an experienced sea swimmer, contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority and reported ancient columns he had observed while swimming off the Beit Yanai beach.
The ship’s cargo, including huge 1,800-year-old, Roman period marble architectural elements, was discovered in the sea about 200 meters from the coastline of Bet Yannai, about 6 km north of Netanya. This is the oldest sea cargo of its kind known in the Eastern Mediterranean, composed of Corinthian capitals decorated with vegetal motifs, partially carved capitals, and a huge marble architrave, measuring up to 6 meters long. It seems that these valuable architectural elements were destined for a magnificent public building—a temple or a theatre.
IAA Director of the underwater archaeology unit Koby Sharvit, who received the report, related: “We have been aware of the existence of this shipwrecked cargo for a long time, but we didn’t know its exact whereabouts since it was covered by sand. The recent storms must have exposed the cargo, and thanks to Gideon, we have been able to register its location, and carry out preliminary archaeological investigations, which will lead to a more in-depth research project.”
So far, the IAA experts have concluded from the site formation and angle of the cargo on the seabed that the ship bearing the cargo was wrecked after the crew had encountered a storm in the shallow waters, and dropped anchor in a desperate effort to prevent the ship from grounding.
“Such storms often blow up suddenly along the country’s coast, and due to the ships’ limited maneuvering potential, they are often dragged into the shallow waters and shipwrecked,” Sharvit explained.
“From the size of the architectural elements, we can calculate the dimensions of the ship,” he added. “We are talking about a merchant ship that could bear a cargo of at least 200 tons. 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.”
“Since this marble cargo probably came from the Aegean or Black Sea region, in Turkey or Greece, and since it was discovered south of the port of Caesarea, it seems that it was destined for one of the ports along the southern Levantine coast, Ashkelon or Gaza, or possibly even Alexandria in Egypt,” Sharvit speculated.
Gideon Harris’s report to the IAA helped resolve an old puzzle. Land and Sea archaeologists have long argued whether during the Roman period imported architectural elements were completely worked in their lands of origin, or were transported in a partially carved form, and were completed at their destination. This cargo resolves the issue, since, evidently, the architectural elements left the quarry site as basic raw material or partially worked artifacts to be fashioned and finished in the construction site, by local or imported artisans. In the same period, mosaic specialists used to travel from one site to another following commissioned projects.
Harris was awarded a certificate of appreciation for good citizenship.