During December 1998 an underwater survey was conducted in the region of the northern beaches of Ashqelon (License No. G-29/1998; map ref. NIG 15895/62270, OIG 10895/12270), in the wake of a report by J. Ayalon (a volunteer diver in the Marine Archaeology Unit) that two bronze figurines and several metal artifacts were discovered on the seabed. The survey, on behalf of the Antiquities Authority, was directed by E. Galili and J. Sharvit, with the assistance of D. Moscowitz and H. Sal‘iy (diving), S. Ben-Yehuda (drawing and drafting), T. Sagiv and C. Amit (photography), E. Altmark, L. Kupershmidt, M. Levine and R. Vinitsky (metallurgical laboratory).
The construction of the Ashqelon marina and the erosion of sand by storms exposed a rocky seabed, on which remains of a sailing vessel from the Roman period, scattered across an area of 30 × 30 m, at a depth of 3–4 m below sea level, were discovered.
The remains of the ship included a lead assembly piece of a wooden anchor with two arms (length 0.82 m, c. 20 kg), bronze nails with a square cross-section that were used in the hull of the ship (Fig. 1:1), lead sheathing fragments with nail holes that were used to sheathe the under -part of the ship’s hull, several sections of lead pipes (diam. c. 4 cm, length 1.0–1.5 m) and a lead collecting box (0.5 × 0.5 × 0.8 m) that were used to pump water from the bilges of the ship (Fig. 2). Six bronze pulley wheels (diam. 6 cm; Fig. 3) survived from the rigging (sails and masts) of the ship. It seems they were part of the block and tackle system, which comprised two pulley blocks that did not survive, each consisting of three pulley wheels. This type of system was used on boats for raising the rigging and drawing it taut, multiplying the amount of force exerted five times.
The cargo remains included three bronze figurines: a nude female figurine (Aphrodite?; Fig. 4), a naked bearded man (a Satyr or Priapus) and a small zoomorphic figurine. The female figurine bends her left leg up above the right knee and extends her right hand in the direction of her left heel. Her left hand is waved upward and the palm of the hand, which is partly missing, is resting on some object that did not survive, probably a sword or a steering oar. Her head, facing slightly to the right, is a bit inclined. Her hair is pulled back and some of it rests on her left shoulder. The figurine (height 20 cm) is made of a single piece of cast bronze, save the two eyes, which are inlayed with pieces of silver. Based on similar artifacts, the figurine can be attributed to the image of ‘Aphrodite removing the sandal’. A similar bronze figurine of Aphrodite was discovered in the sea at Caesarea (ESI 7-8:42). The male figurine depicts a naked man wearing a tall hat (Fig. 5). The figure rests on its right leg and extends its left foot slightly forward. Its right hand is raised upward, whereas the left elbow is raised slightly and the arm is bent next to the chest (a dance movement?). It has a large and accentuated phallus, somewhat grotesque; the bearded head is tilted somewhat to the right and forward and the facial features are worn. The figurine (height 10 cm) is cast in one piece. The zoomorphic figurine (height 1.9 cm) is shaped as a mammal in a seated position (monkey?), covering its mouth with the two fore limbs (Fig. 6).
An especially large bronze nail (length 0.76 m) with a round cross-section was found. The straight shank of the nail, which bears no signs of hammering on the nail head, indicates it was never used and probably belonged to the ship’s cargo, rather than being part of the ship itself. Other artifacts included a bronze bell with a hole in its upper part for suspension (length 12 cm), a bronze weight in the image of a cardium shell (Fig. 1:2), two hollow decorative bronze pieces with a long neck and a thickened body shaped as a small open bottle (Fig. 1:3), a bronze lid of a vessel that bears two busts in relief (human images; Fig. 1:4) and a lead mace head. A variety of small objects that were used for fishing, including fishhooks, bronze needles used to repair fishing nets and lead weights for fishing nets, one of which is decorated with a relief of an anchor, were also found.
Based on the bronze nails, the figurines and the scatter of artifacts along the seabed we can reasonably assume that a Roman merchant vessel (first–second centuries CE), 15–25 m in length was shipwrecked there. The ship probably encountered stormy weather and, in the absence of a natural anchorage or a harbor, it drifted toward land and was wrecked in an area where the waves break close to shore.