A load of 1,800-year-old marble columns has been found among the wreck of a ship in Israel. Dating back to the age of the Roman Empire, this is the oldest sea cargo of its kind ever discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Recent dives to the site have shown that the ship was carrying a number of Corinthian columns measuring up to 6 meters (19 feet) long that are ornately decorated with motifs of plants.
The ancient shipwreck lies around 200 meters (656 feet) from the coastline of Bet Yannai, around 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) north of the city of Netanya. The site has been known for some time, but the exact location of the cargo was only revealed a few weeks ago when a storm upset the sand in the area.
While exploring the waters by the beach, the ancient artifacts were stumbled upon by Gideon Harrishe. He notified the Israel Antiquities Authority who sent a team to investigate – and they were far from disappointed.
“We have been aware of the existence of this shipwrecked cargo for a long time, but we didn’t know its exact whereabouts as it was covered over by sand, and we could therefore not investigate it,” Koby Sharvit, director of the underwater archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement sent to IFLScience.
“The recent storms must have exposed the cargo, and thanks to Gideon’s important report, we have been able to register its location, and carry out preliminary archaeological investigations, which will lead to a more in-depth research project,” he said.
It’s likely the marble came from what is now modern-day Turkey or Greece and was heading for a location along the southern Levantine coast, such as Gaza or possibly even Alexandria in Egypt, where it would be used in the construction of a grand public building.
Unfortunately, it appears the ship succumbed to a storm in shallow waters and the delivery didn’t reach its destination.
“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,” Sharvit explains.
“From the size of the architectural elements, we can calculate the dimensions of the ship; we are talking about a merchant ship that could bear a cargo of at least 200 tons,” adds Sharvit.
The unique find helps to answer some questions about Roman-period architecture in the Levant and beyond.
“Land and sea archaeologists have long argued whether the Roman period imported architectural elements were completely worked in their lands of origin, or whether they were transported in a partially carved form, and were carved and fashioned at their site of destination,” continued Sharvit.
“The find of this cargo resolves the debated issue, as it is evident that the architectural elements left the quarry site as basic raw material or partially worked artifacts and that they were fashioned and finished on the construction site, either by local artists and artisans or by artists who were brought to the site from other countries, similarly to specialist mosaic artists who traveled from site to site following commissioned projects,” he said.