Recreational divers Ran Feinstein and Ofer Ra'anan were exploring the waters of the Mediterranean Sea near the ancient port of Caesarea last month when they stumbled on the wreck of an ancient Roman merchant ship. After they alerted the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) of their find, the organization’s divers recovered a stunning array of artifacts from the shipwreck, including numerous bronze statues and a load of coins imprinted with the image of Emperor Constantine I, best known for spearheading the acceptance of Christianity within the Roman Empire. Officials from the IAA have called the discovery the most significant marine archaeological find of the past 30 years.

Named in honor of Augustus Caesar, founder of the Roman Empire, the ancient port of Caesarea served as an important center of early Christianity in the Roman world. It is located off the coast of present-day Israel some 35 miles north of Tel Aviv and 27 miles south of Haifa, and is now the site of a national park renowned for its collection of ancient buildings and monuments. Last month, two recreational divers there made one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries in recent memory, uncovering a sizeable cache of statues, coins and other artifacts carried on board a sunken cargo ship dating to the late Roman period some 1,600 years ago.

The two divers, Ran Feinstein and Ofer Ra’anan, reported their find to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which promptly sent its own dive team to the site to conduct an excavation. Ocean currents had moved aside some of the sand on the sea floor, revealing the shipwreck, including iron anchors and the remains of wooden anchors, and much of the ship’s cargo near the top of the sand. Once they dug beneath the layers of sand, the divers uncovered many more artifacts located just under the sea floor.

Credit: (Assaf Peretz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
Credit: (Assaf Peretz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Among the artifacts they brought to the surface were a bronze lamp depicting the sun god Sol and a bronze figurine of the moon goddess Luna, both Roman deities; a bronze lamp formed in the image of the head of an African slave; fragments of three life-size bronze cast statues and a bronze faucet in the shape of a wild boar with a swan on its head. Archaeologists also identified fragments of large jars used for carrying drinking water for the ship’s crew while at sea. Among the most surprising finds were two metallic lumps made up of thousands of coins. Weighing in at some 20 kilograms (or 44 pounds), the two lumps of coins were shaped in the form of the pottery vessels in which they were transported.

The artifacts recovered from the ancient Roman ship constitute the most significant marine archaeological find in Israel in the past 30 years, according to IAA officials. As Jacob Sharvit, director of the organization’s Marine Archaeology Unit, speculated: “The location and distribution of the ancient finds on the seabed indicate that a large merchant ship was carrying a cargo of metal slated [for] recycling, which apparently encountered a storm at the entrance to the harbor and drifted until it smashed into the seawall and the rocks.”

According to Sharvit, metal statues from antiquity are extremely rare because so many were melted down so that the metal could be reused. “Because these statues were wrecked together with the ship, they sank in the water and were thus ‘saved’ from the recycling process.” In addition, he says, “The sand protected the statues; consequently they are in an amazing state of preservation – as though they were cast yesterday rather than 1,600 years ago.”

The wrecked ship and its cargo date to a period just before Christianity became the formal religion of the Roman Empire. At the time, economic and commercial stability prevailed, and a large and wealthy community of Christians lived in Caesarea. The images that appear on the recovered coins belong to Constantine I, ruler of the Western Roman Empire from A.D. 312-324 and the entire Roman Empire from 324-337; and Licinius, ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire from 308-324 and Constantine’s rival. In 324, Constantine attacked Licinius and defeated him in battle at Adrianople and Chrysopolis (modern Edirne and Üsküdar, Turkey, respectively) to consolidate power.

Throughout his life, Constantine credited his success to his conversion to Christianity and the support of the Christian God. Known as Constantine the Great, he paved the way for the acceptance–and eventual–dominance of the Christian faith within the Roman Empire. Though he was the first Christian emperor, Christianity didn’t become Rome’s official religion until A.D. 380, by decree of Emperor Theodosius I.

Last year, divers and the IAA discovered another shipwreck near Caesarea containing thousands of gold coins from the Fatimid Caliphate, which ruled Northern Africa from 909 to 1171. That cache is currently on display at the Caesarea harbor. After archaeologists have had time to study the artifacts found in the most recent shipwreck, they too will go on display to the public. According to Sharvit, the divers who found them will be awarded a certificate of appreciation for their “good citizenship” and invited to tour the storerooms of the National Treasures.