A diver swimming in the Mediterranean Sea recently came across an 1,800-year-old shipwreck off the northwest coast of Israel.
Although archaeologists knew the wreckage, they did not know “where exactly it was because it was covered in sand”. Koby Charvit (opens in a new tab), director of the Underwater Archeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), said in a statement released on Monday (May 15). It is likely that recent storms have helped expose the cargo, he added.
The ancient Roman-era ship carried 44 tons (40 metric tons) of marble, including Corinthian columns with ornate plant motifs, capitals (the highest part of the columns) and marble columns measuring approximately 20 feet (6 meters) long; it is the oldest known maritime cargo wreck in the eastern Mediterranean, according to a statement.
After discovering the wreck several weeks ago, diver Gideon Harris reported it to the IAA.
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Based on the size of the architectural elements, the archaeologists calculated the size of the merchant ship, determining that “it could support a cargo of at least 200 tons [181 metric tons]“, said Sharvit; this is equivalent to almost 30 adult male African elephants.
Examining the position and angle of the ship’s remains, archaeologists believe it “met a storm in the shallows and dropped anchor in a desperate effort to keep the ship from running aground,” according to the press release.
“Such storms often break out suddenly along the coasts of the country,” Sharvit said, “and due to the ships’ limited maneuvering potential, they are often dragged into shallow waters and wrecked.”
He added that the marble shipment may have come from Turkey or Greece and was traveling south “maybe [to] Alexandria in Egypt.”
For years, archaeologists have debated whether or not the ancient Romans imported fully fabricated architectural elements or only shipped partially finished pieces. This discovery closes the debate by showing that the pieces “left the quarry site as basic raw material or partially worked artefacts and were shaped and finished on site, either by local artists and craftsmen or by artists who have been brought to the site”. site from other countries, like mosaic artists who moved from site to site following commissioned projects,” the statement said.
It is not known where the marble columns were to be placed, but it is possible that they decorated a “magnificent public building” such as a temple or a theater, according to the statement.