Marine Archeologists’ Finds at Caesarea May Hold a Warning for the Future

In light of the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey in mid-August, the discovery by University marine archeologists this summer of a fault-line below the ancient harbor of Caesarea may have some worrying implications for Israel.

Archeological digs at this ancient port site this year also revealed what may have been a 2,000-year-old naval base and, consequently, evidence of perhaps the first Jewish navy.

These discoveries, and others, emanated from the recently concluded 11th annual season of excavations conducted by the Combined Caesarea Expeditions, sponsored by the University and the University of Maryland. Prof. Avner Raban of the University’s Recanati Center for Maritime Studies and Prof. Kenneth Holum of Maryland led an archeological team that at one point numbered some 250 persons, mostly students from the United States, Canada, and Britain, but also volunteers from other countries.

The underwater excavations of the ancient harbor produced, for the first time, evidence of an active fault-line. According to Raban, this fault, which bisects the basin of the harbor from north to south, caused its submergence. There were at least two tectonic catastrophes, one at the end of the 1st century CE and one in the mid-6th century CE. The second toppled the two towers that stood at the entrance to the artificial harbor built by Herod between 22 and 10 BCE.

The coastline, in Raban’s estimation, is probably less stable than was previously thought, meaning that it is more susceptible to earthquakes. This, he said, has implications for off-shore construction today. His opinion is in contrast to what geologists have thought up to now.

As for the ancient naval base, underwater archeologists came across a large, hollowed-out depression in the rock, through which ran a higher rock spine. The sloping rock surface was more than 16 meters wide and 45 meters long. The structure, Raban said, conforms to installations that have been identified in Greece and Italy as ship-sheds, containing covered slipways for war galleys. The archeologist then commented: “Perhaps we have here the ship-sheds of King Herod’s naval units.” If so, this would be the first evidence that Herod had a Mediterranean fleet, making it in effect the first Jewish navy. (King Solomon, of course, had a merchant fleet based in what is now Eilat.)

Besides the two sponsoring Universities, other participating institutions in the Combined Caesarea Expeditions for the 1999 season were the University of Oklahoma, University of Kansas, Creighton University, and Dominican University in the United States, McMaster University in Canada, and Ardingly College in the U.K.

Two prize finds were recovered from the sand layers in one of the underwater areas probed. One was a bronze statuette of a nude male; in the experts’ opinion, it is probably an early Roman copy of a Hellenistic statue of Apollo. The other was a golden bracelet weighing more than 50 grams.

On land, the archeological team continued to excavate a large warehouse, which revealed a quantity of local jars and imported amphoras from all over the eastern half of the Mediterranean as well as coins minted between 500 CE and 638 CE. The warehouse was apparently built above an earlier one dating to the early Roman period.

The quarter of ancient Caesarea where the warehouse came to light was likely the city’s Jewish quarter. The expedition’s archeologists think that it hosted two of Jesus’ disciples, Peter and Paul, who resided in the city briefly in that period. The earlier warehouse structure had been built directly above carefully quarried bedrock that slopes gently southward toward the waterfront of the inner harbor basin. This part of the quarter thus appears to have been a commercial district.

Announcing the entrance to the now-submerged outer harbor basin of Herod’s great artificial harbor of Sebastos were the two adjacent towers. The archeological team exposed the cement bottoms of these towers, which were laid on sand in 12 meters of water. In Raban’s assessment, “there is no doubt” that [because of tectonic activity] one of the towers tumbled on its side, probably no later than the end of the 1st century CE. Both towers suffered from upheavals that caused them to break apart in the mid-6th century CE. Moreover, excavators in the recently completed 1999 season found evidence of additional seismic destruction, which, Raban explained, resulted from a series of tremors and earthquakes between the 1st and 6th centuries. Then there was the great earthquake that struck the region in 749 CE. If the region suffered from repeated tectonic crises in the past, he warns, there is the danger that it sustain such natural catastrophes in the future, as well.

* The later period in Caesarea’s long history as a city is ill documented, says Avner Raban, who wanted to do justice to a period of history of the country that has been much underestimated in his opinion. “This was no ‘Dark Ages,’ but a period of brilliant artistic and technological achievements.” The result is a special exhibition at the University’s Hecht Museum, entitled “The Richness of Islamic Caesarea.” The more than 500 objects on display in the exhibition help recreate the setting of an early Islamic urban residence in this city.

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