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Shipwreck yields ancient coin bounty

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By Richard Giedroyc

They may not be gold doubloons and pieces of eight, but the ancient Roman coins recently recovered from the wreck of a Roman ship off the coast of Israel are of great value to archaeologists.

The coins had been stored onboard in two pots. Over the centuries the pots disintegrated, with the coins fusing together in the shape of the containers in which they had been stored. Of special interest are the many broken pieces of statuary also discovered on the shipwreck. Since these were broken prior to the sinking of the ship it appears the objects were destined to be scrapped, with their metal being recycled. It is possible but unlikely the coins were meant to be scrapped as well.

A scuba diver recovers ancient Roman coins from the discovered shipwreck. (Image by Assaf Pereti, Israel Antiquities Authority)

A scuba diver recovers ancient Roman coins from the discovered shipwreck. (Image by Assaf Pereti, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israeli Antiquities Authority Director Jacob Sharvit and his deputy Dror Planer released a joint statement reading: “Metal statues are rare archaeological finds because they were always melted down and recycled in antiquity.”

Even the Colossus of Rhodes was sent to the recycling bin following an earthquake in which it was destroyed.

The non-coin objects recovered included what Sharvit and Planer called “objects fashioned in the shape of animals such as a whale [and] a bronze faucet [tap] in the form of a wild boar with a swan on its head … in an amazing state of preservation.”

There were drinking cup fragments, “bronze lamp depicting the image of the sun god Sol, a figurine of the moon goddess Luna, a lamp in the image of the head of an African slave [and] fragments of three life-size bronze cast statues.”

There are iron anchors that appear to have been tossed into the sea as the ship’s crew tried to avoid having the ship strike the sea wall and rocks at the harbor of Caesarea, likely during a storm.

There are estimated to be thousands of coins at the shipwreck site. They were recovered in two lumps weighing about 44 pounds. The visible coins on the outside of the lumps depict either Constantine I “the Great” or Licinius on their obverses. Constantine was emperor of the Western Roman Empire from 312 to 324 C.E. and of the entire empire from 324 to 337. Licinius was emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire until he was defeated by Constantine in 324 at the Battle of Chrysopolis.

The majority of coins recovered depict the Roman emperor Constantine I and Luinius.

The majority of coins recovered depict the Roman emperors Constantine I "the Great" and Licinius.

The joint Sharvit and Planer statement reads: “It was at this time that Emperor Constantine put a halt to the policy of persecuting Christians, and the faithful in Caesarea, as well as elsewhere in the Roman Empire, were given the legitimacy to practice their belief through the famous Edict of Milan that proclaimed Christianity was no longer a banned religion.

“Later, Constantine recognized Christianity as the official state religion, and it was during his reign that the fundamentals of the religion were established.”

It has been suggested this may be why the damaged and broken statues recovered from the sea are of Roman gods and humans, perhaps because they were no longer needed by pagan worshipers.

Divers Ran Feinstein and Ofer Ra‘anan of Ra‘anana, who discovered the wreck, contacted Israel’s Antiquities Authority as is required by Israeli law. Each will receive a certificate for their efforts.

“In recent years we have witnessed many random discoveries in the harbor at Caesarea,” said Sharvit. “These finds are the result of two major factors: a lack of sand on the seabed causing the exposure of ancient artifacts, and an increase in the number of divers at the site.”

About one year earlier divers encountered about 2,000 gold coins in the same harbor. These and other more minor discoveries indicate there was a large volume of trade at Caesarea during the late Roman period. The time was known for local economic and commercial stability.

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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