A treasure trove of bronze statues and coins bearing the images of Roman emperors has emerged from the waters of the ancient Mediterranean harbor of Caesarea, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced Monday.
The discovery, hailed as the largest assemblage of marine artifacts recovered in the country during the past 30 years, was initially made by two divers who stumbled across the remains of a large merchant ship. It is estimated the vessel sank during the Late Roman period some 1,600 years ago.
Prompted by the divers' report, IAA archaeologists cleared an extensive portion of the seabed, bringing to light iron anchors, coins and spectacular bronze statues.
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"The sand protected them. They are in an amazing state of preservation – as though they were cast yesterday rather than 1,600 years ago," Jacob Sharvit, director of the IAA marine archaeology unit and Dror Planer, deputy director of the unit, said in a statement.
The artworks include a bronze lamp depicting the image of the Roman sun god Sol, a figurine of the moon goddess Luna, a lamp in the shape of the head of an African slave, fragments of three life-size bronze cast statues, and objects fashioned in the shape of animals.
In addition, the archaeologists recovered fragments of large jars that were used by the crew for carrying drinking water and two metallic lumps. Surprisingly, the lumps were made of thousands of coins and shaped in the form of the pottery vessel in which they were transported.
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"These are extremely exciting finds, which apart from their extraordinary beauty, are of historical significance," Sharvit and Planer said.
The coins bear the likeness of two emperors: Constantine and Licinius. While Constantine ruled the Western Roman Empire (312–324 AD) and was later known as Constantine the Great, ruler of the Roman Empire(324–337 AD), Licinius ruled the eastern part of the Roman Empire.
A rival of Constantine, with whom he co-authored the edict that established religious toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire, Licinius was submitted to Constantine following the Battle of Chrysopolis, in modern Turkey, in 324 AD.
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According to Sharvit and Planer, the location and distribution of the artifacts on the seabed indicate that a large merchant ship was carrying a cargo of metal slated recycling.
"Because the statues were wrecked together with the ship, they sank in the water and were thus saved from the recycling process," they said.
The archaeologists believe the ship encountered a storm at the entrance to the harbor and drifted until it smashed into the seawall and the rocks.
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A preliminary study of the iron anchors suggests the crew attempted to stop the drifting vessel before it reached shore by casting anchors into the sea.
"However, these broke – evidence of the power of the waves and the wind which the ship was caught up in," Sharvit and Planer said.
Last year an impressive cache of gold coins was discovered on the seabed in Caesarea.
While the new finds are still undergoing conservation treatment, the gold coins are already being displayed in the "Time Travel" exhibition in the Caesarea harbor.