Several fascinating artifacts from the wrecks of two ships that foundered off the coast of Caesarea in the Roman and Mamluk periods (1700 and 600 years ago) were discovered in recent months near Caesarea, during an underwater survey conducted by the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The ships’ cargoes and the remains of their wrecked hulls were scattered in shallow water at a depth of about 4 meters on the seafloor.
According to Jacob Sharvit and Dror Planer of the IAA’s Marine Archaeology Unit, “the ships were probably anchored nearby and were wrecked by a storm. They may have been anchored offshore after getting into difficulty, or fearing stormy weather because sailors know well that mooring in shallow, open water outside a port is dangerous and invites disaster.”
The marine treasure includes hundreds of silver and bronze Roman coins from the mid-third century CE and a large hoard of silver coins from the Mamluk period (fourteenth century), about 560 coins. It also includes a large amount of smaller ribbon cut like pieces; a bronze figurine in the form of an eagle, symbolizing Roman rule; a figurine of a Roman mime in a comic mask; numerous bronze bells to ward off evil spirits; and pottery vessels. Multiple metal items from the hull of the wooden ships were also discovered, including dozens of large bronze nails, lead pipes from a bilge pump, and a large iron anchor broken in pieces-attesting to the force it withstood until it finally snapped, probably in the storm.
The underwater remains also include rare personal effects of the shipwreck victims. Among these are a beautiful, red gemstone for setting in a gemma’s ring—an early astronomical instrument consisting of three rings representing the celestial equator, declination, and the meridian.
The carving of the gemstone shows a lyre. In Jewish tradition, the lyre is called Kinor David (David’s harp). According to I Samuel 16:23, King David played his harp for Saul “Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.” The biblical kinor is believed to have been the instrument known as Apollo’s Lyre in Greek culture. In the Greek myth, the infant Hermes made the lyre out of the shell of a tortoise on the morning of his birth. In exchange for the instrument, the music-loving Apollo agreed to turn Hermes and his mother into gods.
Another exquisite find is a thick, octagonal gold ring set with a green gemstone carved with the figure of a young shepherd boy dressed in a tunic and carrying a ram or a sheep on his shoulders. The image, illustrating the ‘Good Shepherd,’ is one of the earliest and oldest images used in Christianity to represent Jesus as humanity’s compassionate shepherd. The gold with the figure of the Good Shepherd may offer an indication that its owner was an early Christian.
The ring was discovered near the port of Caesarea, a site of great significance in the Christian tradition. Caesarea was one of the earliest centers of Christianity and housed one of the first Christian communities. At first, only Jews belonged to this community, and it was here that the apostle Peter baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:10).
“This was the first instance of a non-Jew being accepted into the Christian community,” says Sharvit. “From here on, the Christian religion began to be disseminated around the world.”
According to Eli Eskozido, Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Israel’s coasts are rich in sites and finds that are immensely important national and international cultural heritage assets. They are extremely vulnerable, which is why the IAA conducts underwater surveys to locate, monitor, and salvage antiquities. Occasionally, the sporting activities along Israel’s shores, including diving, snorkeling, open water swimming, and sailing, lead to the discovery of antiquities. We appeal to divers: if you come across an ancient find, make a note of its underwater location, leave it in the sea, and report it to us immediately. The discovery and documentation of artifacts at the original spot where they were found have tremendous archaeological importance and sometimes even a small find leads to a great discovery.”