Israel’s Marine Archaeology Treasures – An Endangered Cultural Resource

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By: Ehud Galili and Sarah Arenson

The Maritime cultural heritage of Israel is an integral part of human history, from the Neolithic revolution to the first Empires as well as the foundation of monotheistic religions. Responsibly preserving that heritage is an immense challenge.

Excavations and surveys revealed harbors and anchorages, prehistoric settlements inundated by the sea, shipwrecks and their cargoes and various coastal settlements and installations. These cultural assets represent important historical milestones, while demonstrating the continuous relationship between humans and the sea.


Atlit-Yam pre Pottery Neolithic water well (I. Greenberg).

Atlit-Yam pre Pottery Neolithic water well (I. Greenberg).

The Ottoman shipwreck DW2 in Dor Lagoon (J. Galili).

The Ottoman shipwreck DW2 in Dor Lagoon (J. Galili).

Rock cut pool for keeping murex shells intended for the purple dye industry in Shiqmona (E.G.).

Rock cut pool for keeping murex shells intended for the purple dye industry in Shiqmona (E.G.).

General location map-Harbors, Anchorages, submerged prehistoric settlements and protected marine archaeological sites on the Mediterranean Coast of Israel: A - northern section, B - southern section, C –the Sea of Galilee, D – The Carmel coast and Haifa bay, E -the Dead Sea (E.G.)

General location map-Harbors, Anchorages, submerged prehistoric settlements and protected marine archaeological sites on the Mediterranean Coast of Israel: A – northern section, B – southern section, C –the Sea of Galilee, D – The Carmel coast and Haifa bay, E -the Dead Sea (E.G.)


The seabed and shores of Israel form a vast “data bank” of knowledge about antiquity, but much of it has yet to be discovered and studied. Underwater and coastal archaeological sites are exceptionally valuable also from the economic point of view. Careful preservation and development can turn them into an asset, attracting domestic and foreign tourism. Israeli coastal cities and underwater sites have great, untapped potential as educational parks, museums and recreation centers. The same is true for the Sea of Galilee, a fresh water lake in northern Israel, and the Dead Sea, a hyper-saline desert lake located in southern Israel, the lowest terrestrial place on Earth. The shores of these lakes were settled by humans since prehistory and were associated with events of historical, cultural and religious importance. As such, the history of maritime activity on these lakes is of great interest.

Harbors, Anchorages and protected marine archaeological sites on the Sea of Galilee (E.G.).

Harbors, Anchorages and protected marine archaeological sites on the Sea of Galilee (E.G.).

The dangers to the marine heritage

Coastal regions are sensitive to changes and environmental disturbances affect them negatively. Human activities on the coast such as quarrying, construction of breakwaters, harbors, marinas, and power stations, disturb coastal sedimentation equilibrium, thus endangering the cultural resources. Sea level rise (at a rate of approximately 20 centimeters in the 20th century) has exacerbated the effects of such activities.

The resulting sand shortage caused coastal and underwater erosion and the exposure of ancient remains, previously protected by overlaying sediments. The vanishing of protective sand exposed underwater and coastal sites to the destructive forces of the waves. Underwater archaeological sites are also endangered by treasure hunting, oil pollution, hydrocarbons exploitation and fishing.


Top: the Roman high level aqueduct in Caesarea- a 500 m section of the aqueduct was eroded in the past; Bottom: the Byzantine city ruins undergoing marine erosion (E.G.).

Top: the Roman high level aqueduct in Caesarea- a 500 m section of the aqueduct was eroded in the past; Bottom: the Byzantine city ruins undergoing marine erosion (E.G.).

Schematic cross section of a typical beach and the possible risks to the archaeological heritage (E.G.).

Schematic cross section of a typical beach and the possible risks to the archaeological heritage (E.G.).

Endangered ancient settlements on the Mediterranean Coast of Israel – types and distribution (E.G.).

Endangered ancient settlements on the Mediterranean Coast of Israel – types and distribution (E.G.).


As to the inner lakes, their unique geo-morphological and climatic conditions, coupled with heavy development pressures, are already causing great damage to culturally important sites. If these processes continue at the current rate, most of the cultural assets will disappear within a few decades and their irretrievable archaeological, cultural and touristic value would be lost forever.

Documentation and Risk assessment:

The first step towards the protection and preservation of the marine legacy has been done, with thorough survey and mapping resulting in a compilation of a national risk assessment document. The detailed mapping was followed by an assembly of a computerized database of all the known ancient underwater and coastal sites along the approximately 200 kilometer long Israeli Mediterranean coast. Sites were mapped and categorized according to archaeological, geographical and cultural parameters, using a multi-layer geographic information system (GIS).

The data accumulated during underwater and coastal excavations and surveys were used to build a comprehensive list of sites (576 sites) arranged in 9 maps, and an additional list of 227 selected sites of special importance, requiring protection. A comprehensive typology of underwater and coastal sites was set and the sites were classified according to their archaeological characteristics (coastal settlements, submerged settlements, harbors, anchorages, shipwrecks, and rock cut installations) and degree of importance. Site locations were marked by points or polygons and were incorporated into the national master plans (e.g., see the Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority site).

Typology of underwater and coastal archaeological sites in Israel's seas. The typology is based on Galili and Sharvit (1994), with some additions and changes (E.G.).

Typology of underwater and coastal archaeological sites in Israel’s seas. The typology is based on Galili and Sharvit (1994), with some additions and changes (E.G.).

Using this database, the most important coastal and underwater sites were selected for more detailed risk assessment surveys. Sites were surveyed by expert conservators, archaeologists, and marine engineers, who prepared comprehensive risk assessment documents and detailed conservation plans for the major sites. These included dividing the sites into sections, estimation of the risks and the required conservation and protection manners as well as rescue surveys. The documents also specified archaeological and preservation activities needed in every section of the sites, including the cost evaluations.


Left: risk assessment survey map of Caesarea sea front, demonstrating the coastal sections (numbers 1-30), degree of preservation and priorities of treatment in each section: A = severely threatened, B = threatened, C = partly threatened at some locations, D = stable (Leonid Tzaskin, E.G., Survey of Israel).

Left: risk assessment survey map of Caesarea sea front, demonstrating the coastal sections (numbers 1-30), degree of preservation and priorities of treatment in each section: A = severely threatened, B = threatened, C = partly threatened at some locations, D = stable (Leonid Tzaskin, E.G., Survey of Israel).

Ancient water well destroyed on the sea front of Ashkelon North site (G. Almagor).

Ancient water well destroyed on the sea front of Ashkelon North site (G. Almagor).


The sites that underwent detailed assessment are the three harbor cities of Akko, Atlit and Caesarea, and the coastal sites of Apollonia, Yavneh-Yam, Ashkelon North, and Tell Ashkelon. Partial risk assessment surveys were performed for other sites, including Akhziv, Tell Tanninim, Tell Dor, Ashdod-Yam, and the submerged prehistoric settlements of Atlit-Yam and Neve-Yam. All the site documents were summarized and a concluding national document was prepared, specifying the risks to the coastal sites, proposing archaeological and protection measures to be taken in each site and their estimated costs. The document deals also with later stages, following the initial salvage by monitoring and yearly maintenance, and proposes a national budgetary framework for annual and multi-year solutions.

[Estimation costs of conservation, protection measures, and underwater excavations (2007 prices in NIS, total prices in NIS and Euro). Tables 1-2]

Corrective measures taken

Pilot projects for protecting and preserving the sea fronts of Ashkelon, Apollonia, Caesarea and Akko were completed. During 2010 a government policy document for the destruction of the coastal cliffs was approved. During 2013 a government company aimed at preserving the coastal cliffs, including the ancient sites, was established. Around the Sea of Galilee, the Israel Antiquities Authority has reconstructed five ancient harbors that were severely damaged by coastal development. The ancient harbors of Capernaum, Tabgha, Ein Gev, Ein Gofra and Kfar Akavya were rebuilt from local stones using archival photographs and plans. Sharing the cultural heritage with the public and raising public awareness was performed by lectures, publications, exhibitions in museums and producing posters, films and postal stamps.

Educational poster depicting the typical underwater archaeological finds from Israel (S. Cohen).

Educational poster depicting the typical underwater archaeological finds from Israel (S. Cohen).

Actions to be taken

Legal mechanisms must be used to control coastal development, assure integrated coastal zone management, establish sustainable development and protect the marine cultural resources. National and regional master plans for protection and rescue of the ancient coastal and underwater sites should be drafted and implemented. The issue of preserving and protecting the coastal archaeological heritage should become part of the national and international agenda. A budgetary framework is to be created for the short and long term treatment of the ancient coastal and underwater sites. Their protection should become a preferred issue in the national order of priorities. Legal and enforcement tools should assure that during construction and building activities, neither direct nor indirect damage is done to the ancient coastal settlements.

Developers should be required to bear the long-term responsibility for damages likely to be caused by building structures and installations near ancient coastal settlements. That should be specifically stipulated in the building permits. These tools should be applied equally to the private and the public sectors, as well as to the military. Some of the surcharge and taxes for using beach facilities should be allotted to the preservation of coastal antiquities.

Research institutions from Israel and abroad should be encouraged to conduct archaeological rescue excavations in endangered parts of the ancient coastal settlements. International collaboration should be established with the aim of protecting and conserving the endangered underwater and coastal archaeological heritage of the Mediterranean Coast of Israel and Israel’s inland seas. It is important to treat the public as an owner of the heritage and a partner in its protection. Encouraging local communities to share the responsibility of monitoring and protecting the sites is a key issues in the management of the underwater and coastal heritage.

Ehud Galili is a marine archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority and a research fellow in the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. Sarah Arenson is a maritime historian and an environmental activist.

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