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Coins, Artifacts From Ancient Roman Shipwreck Found off Israeli Coast

Biggest find in Israeli territorial waters in the last 30 years


By Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), with the support of the Rothschild Caesarea Foundation, has been very active in the ancient port city of Caesarea in recent years.

Early in 2015, the IAA recovered the largest trove of gold coins ever found in Israeli territory in the same waters. A handful of friends from a local diving club made the initial discovery and informed the Antiquities Authority.

Last month’s find occurred in a similar fashion.

Sometime before Passover, which started on April 22 this year, divers Ran Feinstein and Ofer Ra‘anan discovered the site and contacted the IAA. The duo later joined IAA archaeologists on the initial investigation, wherein it was determined that the wreckage was of an ancient Roman merchant vessel that appears to have been hauling scrap for recycling.

Remains included the ship’s iron anchors, the remnants of its wooden anchors, and several items used in the vessel’s day-to-day maintenance and operations. Marks and wear on the iron anchors support the theory that the ship was disabled in a storm and crashed against the shore by powerful waves and storm winds despite the efforts of her crew.

This then led to an “underwater salvage survey”, conducted by numerous Authority archaeologists and volunteers. Many of the items in the ship’s cargo were made of bronze and in an excellent state of preservation thanks to the sand that had covered them for over 1,600 years.

Objects recovered from the site include:

  • A bronze lamp depicting Sol, the Roman god of the Sun;
  • A bronze figurine depicting Luna, the Roman personification of the Moon;
  • A lamp fashioned to look like the head of an African;
  • Fragments of life-size cast bronze statues;
  • A whale-shaped object;
  • A bronze faucet in the shape of a wild boar with a swan on its head;
  • Fragments from clay transport vessels and large jars that held water for the ship’s crew; and
  • Two large lumps of metal

Talking about the rarity of finding so many bronze statues in such god condition, Jacob Sharvit, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority Marine Archaeology Unit, said that a “marine assemblage such as this has not been found in Israel in the past 30 years”.

But the lumps of metal–still in the shape of the clay vessels they were carried in–turned out to be thousands of coins weighing around 20 kg total. Dating to the mid-300s, the coins feature portraits of the Western Roman emperor Constantine I (“The Great”) and Licinius, Constantine’s rival in the East whom he defeated in 324 for sole control of the Empire.

Together, however, Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in 313, legalizing the practice of Christianity across the Roman Empire.

This most recent find comes a little over a year after the aforementioned recovery of almost 2,000 Islamic gold coins from the bottom of Caesarea’s ancient harbor, and barely more than a month after a hiker discovered an extremely rare Roman Imperial commemorative gold coin from the reign of Trajan in the northern Israeli region of Galilee.

And while authorities were investigating the shipwreck in Caesarea, Spanish construction workers accidentally uncovered a massive 600 kg hoard of ancient Roman coins from the same time period as the Israeli find. Many of the coins in the Spanish hoard also bear Constantine’s effigy – though a rival from earlier in his reign, Maximian, is represented as well.

Hubert Walker
Hubert Walker
Hubert Walker has served as the Assistant Editor of CoinWeek.com since 2015. Along with co-author Charles Morgan, he has written for CoinWeek since 2012, as well as the monthly column "Market Whimsy" for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing.

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