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Archaeology in Israel: Underwater Exploration Along Israel’s Mediterranean Coast

Along the Mediterranean coast of the Land of Israel there has always been maritime activity, both of a commercial and a military nature. Evidence of this is provided by the many shipwrecks lying on the floor of the sea near the coast.

Israel’s coastline lacks deep natural harbors and the small craft of ancient times had to find shelter from storms in the mouths of rivers. As early as the first millennium BCE, the capacity of ships plying the Mediterranean had increased considerably, necessitating the construction of deep-water ports for safe anchorage.

Since the 1960s, extensive underwater surveys and excavations have been conducted along the coast of Israel, with the aim of exposing remains of harbors, shipwrecks and cargoes.

Atlit – A Submerged Neolithic Village

Atlit, some 15 kms. south of Haifa, is known for the ruins of a Crusader castle. In the Neolithic period, the level of the Mediterranean was some 20 m. lower than it is today, and the coastal plain was much wider.

Some 400 m. off today’s shore, at a depth of eight to twelve meters, an 8,000-year-old Neolithic village was discovered under a layer of sand carried there by waves and currents, with its dwellings and artifacts well preserved.

Twelve structures with paved courtyards and plazas between them were excavated. At the edge of the village was a long brick wall, probably for protection against winter floods which filled the nearby wadi (dry river bed). A 5.5 m.-deep well cut into the sandstone, its upper part lined with stones, provided water for the village. Bronze was not yet in use during this period, and this is the earliest example of a well dug with axes and hammers of stone. Between the village houses were several stone-lined pits, two to three meters in diameter; they were silos for the storage of food. Fifteen tombs, some within the houses, were also found.

Many flint and bone artifacts were salvaged from the seabed, as well as stone bowls used in this pre-pottery period. Animal bones found indicate that the village’s economy was based on farming and incipient herding, hunting and fishing.

Glacial melting following the last ice age caused the sea level to rise, reducing the area of the coastal plain along the Mediterranean. Seepage of seawater into the wells was probably the cause for the abandonment of the village – which then became submerged.

Atlit – The Phoenician Harbor

The sunken foundations of this Phoenician harbor (dated to the 7th-6th centuries BCE) are believed to be those of the earliest known port with built breakwaters. The breakwaters were built of straight walls enclosing a natural bay. The foundations consist of large ashlar blocks laid on the rock of the seabed and along a small islet offshore. A wall which included a gate separated the harbor from the city.

The cargoes of several vessels were found at the bottom of the harbor and around it. Among them are stone anchors and large amphorae used for transporting wine from the Greek islands.

Atlit – The Ram of an Ancient Warship

The ram of a Hellenistic naval vessel was discovered in the northern bay of Atlit, at a depth of four meters. It is cast of bronze, is 2.26 meters long and weighs almost half a ton. Encased in its rear are the bow timbers of the ship to which it was attached. The front has three protruding horizontal fins, a development from the earlier, pointed ram; this improved its ability to “ram” the enemy’s hull.

The ram is decorated with mythological symbols known from Greek iconography: the eagle (on each side); the trident or thunderbolt; a helm surmounted by the eight-pointed star of the Dioskouri, the protectors of seafarers; and the caduceus or kerkeion, symbol of Hermes. These symbols provide clues regarding the provenance and date of the ship: it is believed to have been built in Cyprus for King Ptolemy VI (204-184 BCE).

Caesarea Maritima

The large deep-water port built by Herod the Great at Ceasarea Maritima is described in detail by Josephus Flavius. (The Jewish War I, 408-415) The harbor consisted of three consecutive basins and its construction was completed around the year 10 BCE. The survey and undersea excavations conducted there revealed a high level of engineering technology at this oldest known example of sophisticated harbor construction, as well as in-depth knowledge of underwater currents and the movement of sand.

The large, outer basin of the harbor was created by constructing two breakwaters enclosing a large area of open sea. Later, as a result of tectonic activity, the foundations of this large, outer harbor sank into the seabed. An arc-shaped breakwater, some 500 m. long, was built along the southern and western sides of the harbor. In the north, a shorter breakwater of about 180 m. length was built westward, at right angles to the shore. Parts of the breakwaters consisted of large ashlar blocks, weighing several tons each, laid as headers on the seabed. Other portions were constructed of enormous chunks of conglomerate cast of hydraulic cement and stone in wooden frames, sunken to the seabed. The long breakwater was 40 - 60 m. wide, on which service and storage facilities were built. Its narrow, inner portion facing the harbor served as a pier for loading and unloading.

At the northern end of the long breakwater are the foundations of a structure built of particularly large blocks and preserved almost to the water level. These are probably the remains of the huge lighthouse “Drusion” that stood at the entrance to the harbor, referred to by Josephus.

The middle basin of the harbor was smaller (220 x 200 m.) and followed the contours of a natural bay. Its quays, 4.5 m. wide, were constructed of ashlar blocks. In its southern part the remains of the Crusader port-fortress and the modern fishermen’s quay stand today.

The inner basin was the smallest, surrounded by the city on three sides. It had been in use in the Hellenistic period, was developed by Herod the Great and became obsolete in the Byzantine period, as a result of continuous silting.

The Harbor of Akko (Acre)

The ancient harbor of Akko was located where the modern fishing harbor is situated today, south of the promontory on which the Old City is built. The earliest man-made construction dates to the Persian period (6th-5th centuries BCE). At that time, a breakwater was built running east to west and enclosing a basin of about 100 dunams (one dunam = 1/4 acre) which offered sea anchor-age and port facilities to the growing number of merchantmen. The breakwater was 260 m. long and 12 m. wide, built of large ashlar blocks laid as headers on a layer of pebbles and shells. During the Roman period, the breakwater was rebuilt with enormous blocks, measuring 12 x 2 x 2 meters, placed about one meter apart.

At the entrance to the harbor, some 70 m. east of the end of the breakwater, stands the Tower of Flies (also called Manara, “light house”). The ancient construction, broadening the natural underwater rock outcrop, is still visible at its base.

The Shipwreck at Ma’agan Michael

A seagoing ship of the Persian period was discovered 70 m. off the coast at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael. Covered with a heavy layer of sand, the hull was exceptionally well preserved from stem to stern and almost up to the waterline. It was built of pine timber with mortise and tenon joining, using the “shell first” mode of construction. Its bow and stern strengthened with fiber lashings, the frames were then installed to support the structure. Also well preserved was the ship’s keel which was made of a single beam. The vessel was originally 13.5 m. long, with a four-meter beam and a displacement of 25 tons.

A unique, one-armed wooden anchor was found intact at the side of the bow. Among the contents of the vessel were a set of carpenter’s tools, several large storage jars, ceramic utensils, ropes and remnants of food, as well as a heavy load of ballast stones. On a commercial voyage, the ship probably foundered and was abandoned.

The Wreck with Figurines

Scattered along the submerged kurkar ridge off the coast of Shavei Zion, a village north of Akko, hundreds of clay figurines were found by a diver-fisherman in 1974. The ship carrying this load of votive terra-cotta figurines must have sunk en route to one of the coastal sanctuaries. The figurines, produced in molds ranging in size from 10 to 30 cm., represent the Goddess Tinit, chief of the Punic pantheon. Her sign, composed of a triangle with a superimposed horizontal bar and a disk, is clearly visible on some of the figurines’ pedestals. The figurines were dated to the 5th century BCE.

The presence of such an assembly of figurines of the Goddess Tinit on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean calls attention to cultural and historical issues regarding the relationship between the Phoenician metropoli and their colonies during the 5th century BCE.

Weapons Abandoned by Napoleon’s Army

A cannon, a mortar and some smaller weapons dumped in the sea by Napoleon’s army on its southward retreat from Acre (Akko) in May 1799, were found off the coast of Dor (north of Ma’agan Michael). The Turkish-made bronze cannon is 1.60 m. long; it was taken as booty by Napoleon’s army on its way northwards to Akko. The mortar poses a riddle: Manufactured in Seville, Spain in 1793 (it is so inscribed), it is 6 inches in diameter and weighs 333 kg. But how did it become part of Napoleon’s weaponry?

Sources: Israel Antiquities Authority