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Rare treasure trove discovered from ancient shipwrecks off Israel’s coast

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Found off the coast of Caesarea, some of the riches found include hundreds of silver coins, figurines and a gold ring engraved with the figure of the Good Shepherd, a well-known symbol of Jesus in early Christian art


In what could be a real-life story from Treasure Island, an archeologist from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) discovered a treasure trove of items from two ancient shipwrecks off the coast of northern Israel.

Found off the coast of Caesarea, some of the riches found include hundreds of silver coins, figurines and a gold ring engraved with the figure of the Good Shepherd, a well-known symbol of Jesus in early Christian art.

“The finds reveal the story of two ships that sank with all hands in different periods, apparently while attempting to maneuver the vessels into port,” the IAA’s Marine Archaeology Unit explained.

A number of fascinating artifacts from the wrecks of two ships, which happened during “the Roman and Mamluk periods (some 1700 and 600 years ago) were discovered in recent months.” it said. “The ships’ cargoes and the remains of their wrecked hulls were found scattered in shallow water at a depth of about 4 meters, scattered along the seafloor.”

Discussing the finds, archaeologists from Marine Archaeology Unit Jacob Sharvit and Dror Planer pointed out that “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 of a port is dangerous and prone to disaster,” they said.

Bronze figurines from the ships’ cargo. (Photo: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Diving into depth about the found treasures, the archeologists said that the hundreds of silver and bronze Roman coins found are believed to date back to the mid-third century CE, while a large hoard of silver coins date back to the Mamluk period of the 14th Century. 

“About 560 coins from this period, including a large amount of smaller ribbon-cut like pieces [were found],” the duo added.

Other items include a bronze figurine in the form of an eagle, symbolizing Roman rule, a figurine of a Roman pantomimus – a nonspeaking dancer in the Roman theatre – in a comic mask, numerous bronze bells, which are supposed to ward off evil spirits, and pottery vessels. 

Rare personal items from the shipwreck’s victims were also found among the treasures. 

“A beautiful red gemstone for setting in a ‘gemma’ ring was found at the site,” the IAA said. “The carving of the gemstone shows a lyre [and] in Jewish tradition, the lyre it is called Kinor David or ‘David’s harp’. 

According to the Bible, a young David played his harp for King Saul to relieve and calm him from evil spirits – whenever David would play, the “evil spirit would leave.”

“In Greek mythology, the biblical harp is usually equated with ‘Apollo’s Lyre’ In the Greek myth, the infant Hermes made the instrument, the lyre, out of the shell of a tortoise on the morning of his birth. In exchange for the instrument, the music lover Apollo agreed to make Hermes and his mother gods,” Sharvit and Planer explained.

Hoard of coins from the Roman period. (Photo: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

A beautiful thick, octagonal gold ring set with a green gemstone was another fantastic find that was discovered amongst the ancient riches. Carved into the gemstone is the figure of a young shepherd boy dressed in a tunic, and he is carrying a ram or a sheep on his shoulders.

“The image, of the ‘Good Shepherd’, is one of the earliest and oldest images used in Christianity for symbolizing Jesus,” the archeologists emphasized. “It represents Jesus as humanity’s compassionate shepherd, extending his benevolence to his flock of believers and all mankind.” They pointed out that the figure on the ring could indicate that its owner was an early Christian.  

The ring,  they continued, “was discovered near the port of Caesarea, which was of great significance in the Christian tradition.”
“Caesarea was one of the earliest centers of Christianity and housed one of the first Christian communities,” Sharvit said. “At first, only Jews belonged to this community. [But] it was here, that the apostle Peter baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius in Caesarea.”

“This was the first instance of a non-Jew being accepted into the Christian community,” he said, highlighting that “from here, the Christian religion began to be disseminated across the world.”

The team also found multiple metal items from the hull of a wooden ship, which included a large iron anchor that was broken into pieces. From the way it’s broken, it’s believed the anchor withstood major force during the storm causing it to snap. 

The underwater discovery of the gold ring. (Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority Marine Archaeology Unit)

Commenting on the find, IAA director Eli Eskozido said “Israel’s coasts are rich in sites and finds, which are immensely important national and international cultural heritage assets.” 

“The discovery and documentation of artifacts at their original findspot have tremendous archaeological importance and sometimes even a small find leads to a great discovery,” he concluded.

**Featured Image: Gold ring with gemma engraved with the figure of the Good Shepherd. (Photo Credit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

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