In 313 CE, Emperor Constantine would alter the face of the Roman Empire forever. His most famed decree, the Edict of Milan, sought to put an end to the persecution of Christians under his dominion, and chart the mighty empire on an unprecedented course toward religious toleration.
Stability and economic fortitude echoed throughout Roman states with large Christian populations, and one city in particular—the ancient port of Caesarea Maritima—was known to have been especially prosperous.
Now, some of the most historically significant evidence of Caesarea's wealth and commerce during this time have been discovered in a 1,600-year-old Roman shipwreck hidden in the harbor's depths.
Two archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority were diving in Caesarea National Park when they came across remnants of the bygone merchant ship that once transported artwork, coins bearing the image of Constantine the Great, and other decorative items across the Mediterranean. The discovery marked the largest collection of marine artifacts to be recovered in the past 30 years.
"These are extremely exciting finds, which apart from their extraordinary beauty, are of historical significance," Jacob Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement.
According to the Israeli historians, the cargo ship was carrying a loot of bronze artifacts slated for recycling—a common practice during this period when metal was a prized commodity, and often melted down and repurposed. Because of this, Sharvit added, intact bronze statues are incredibly difficult to come by, and are usually only retrieved from shipwrecks such as the one uncovered in Caesarea.
Amazingly, the centuries spent under the sand left these items in an exquisite state of preservation. Among the underwater horde were life-size bronze cast statues, a bronze lamp depicting the pagan sun god Sol, and two congealed lumps of coins weighing in at approximately 45 pounds.
Archaeologists are confident the harbor will continue to offer up new findings and insights into the Byzantine trading hub. Just last year, a treasure trove of medieval Arab gold coins were unearthed in the same area. The 2,000 dinars were the official currency of the Fatimid caliphate, which stretched across North Africa, all the way to China. Historians believe the Fatimid currency ended up in Caesarea as part of an official tax payment headed to Cairo.
Conservators are presently restoring the Roman artifacts, which will be studied and hopefully exhibited to the public. Visitors are currently able to see the Fatimid coins in a local museum exhibit called "Time Travel."
As for how the ancient, unlucky mariners ended up with their cargo at the bottom of the sea… Preliminary studies of the vessel suggest a heavy storm pushed the ship from the mouth of harbor into a seawall, smashing it beyond repair. The crew evidently attempted to cast their iron anchors into the ocean, but powerful gusts and currents broke them off their chains.
Luckily for us, those waves of 1,600 years past also managed to wash up an invaluable piece of the Roman Empire's vast legacy.
Update: This story has been changed so as not to imply the Edict of Milan was able to institute permanent religious tolerance throughout the Roman Empire.