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Divers strike gold in ancient Mediterranean harbour

by Greg Klein | February 18, 2015

Divers strike gold in ancient Mediterranean port

Now exposed to winter storms, the Roman port of Caesarea was once protected by a massive breakwater.
(Photo: Greg Klein)


At first they were mistaken for toys. But the coins turned out to be real, leading to the largest hoard of medieval gold currency ever found in Israel. That resulted from the accidental find of amateur divers in the ancient harbour of Caesarea, recently announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The treasure trove amounts to nearly 2,000 gold coins dating as far back as the ninth century.

The value wasn’t reported and probably would be considered priceless anyway. Admirably, the divers reported their discovery to the authority, which extended the search using a metal detector.

Kobi Sharvit, director of the authority’s Marine Archaeology Unit, said winter storms might have exposed the coins. The historic site, where St. Paul was held prior to his voyage to Rome, was once protected by a massive breakwater. Now it’s regularly pummelled by Mediterranean waves.

Divers strike gold in ancient Mediterranean port

Several coins show bite marks, “evidence they were ‘physically’ inspected by their owners or the merchants.”
(Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority)

The coins probably came from a shipwrecked boat carrying taxes to Egypt or possibly were meant to pay the salaries of the Fatimid garrison stationed in Caesarea, Sharvit said. “Another theory is that the treasure was money belonging to a large merchant ship that traded with the coastal cities … and sank there.” Archeologists hope to learn more through salvage excavations.

The authority described the oldest coin as a ninth century quarter dinar minted in Sicily. “Most of the coins, though, belong to the Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥakim (996 to 1021) and his son Al-Ẓahir (1021 to 1036), and were minted in Egypt and North Africa,” the authority stated.

“The coins are in an excellent state of preservation and, despite the fact they were at the bottom of the sea for about a thousand years, they did not require any cleaning or conservation intervention from the metallurgical laboratory,” explained numismatist Robert Cole. “This is because gold is a noble metal and is not affected by air or water.

“Several of the coins that were found in the assemblage were bent and exhibit teeth and bite marks, evidence they were ‘physically’ inspected by their owners or the merchants,” he added. “Other coins bear signs of wear and abrasion from use while others seem as though they were just minted.”

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