A record-breaking ancient treasure trove of gold coins has been discovered along the Israeli coast, in what is believed to be the largest-ever such find in Israel.
The astonishing haul was discovered by accident, when a group of divers from a local diving club at the ancient harbor in Caesarea National Park stumbled upon what they thought was a toy coin discarded by a tourist.
But after realizing the coins were "the real thing" they quickly collected several samples and returned to the shore in order to inform the director of the diving club, who in turn reported the discovery to the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The IAA quickly scrambled a diving team of its own, equipped with metal detectors, who were escorted by the initial group to where the coins were found – and soon discovered the sheer magnitude of the find.
In all, the hoard of gold included 2,000 gold coins in different denominations, including a dinar, half dinar and quarter dinar, of various dimensions and weights.
According to Kobi Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the unprecedented find had remained undisturbed for centuries, and was only unearthed after the recent winter storms disturbed the seabed.
"The discovery of such a large hoard of coins that had such tremendous economic power in antiquity raises several possibilities regarding its presence on the seabed," Sharvit noted, adding that the treasure had probably come from a shipwreck.
"There is probably a shipwreck there of an official treasury boat which was on its way to the central government in Egypt with taxes that had been collected. Perhaps the treasure of coins was meant to pay the salaries of the Fatimid military garrison which was stationed in Caesarea and protected the city," he surmised.
"Another theory is that the treasure was money belonging to a large merchant ship that traded with the coastal cities and the port on the Mediterranean Sea and sank there.
"In the Marine Archaeological Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority they are hoping that with the salvage excavations that will be conducted there, it will be possible to supplement our understanding of the entire archaeological context, and thus answer the many questions that still remain unanswered about the treasure."
Sharvit also praised the divers who made the discovery – Tzvika Feuer, Kobi Tweena, Avivit Fishler, Yoav Lavi and Yoel Miller – for acting with integrity and not seeking to illegally pilfer the hoard for themselves.
"These divers are model citizens," he stated. "They discovered the gold and have a heart of gold that loves the country and its history."
"The Law of Antiquities states that all antiquities belong to the state and that not reporting or removing antiquities from their location, or selling or trading them is an offense punishable by up to five years imprisonment.
"In this case the divers reported the find; but in many instances divers take the objects home and that way extremely important archaeological information is lost forever, which cannot be recovered.
He added that the discovery "underscores the need to combine the development of the place as a tourism and diving site with restrictions that will allow the public to dive there only when accompanied by inspectors or instructors from the diving club."
Robert Cole, an expert numismaticist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, remarked at the coins' "excellent state of preservation," which meant that "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."
"This is because gold is a noble metal and is not affected by air or water," he explained.
"The coins that were exposed also remained in the monetary circulation after the Crusader conquest, particularly in the port cities through which international commerce was conducted," Cole continued.
"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. Other coins bear signs of wear and abrasion from use while others seem as though they were just minted."
The Caesarea Development Company and Nature and Parks Authority hailed the discovery of the treasure.
"There is no doubt that the discovery of the impressive treasure highlights the uniqueness of Caesarea as an ancient port city with rich history and cultural heritage. After 2,000 years it is still capable of captivating its many visitors, of continuing to innovate and surprise again when other parts of its mysterious past are revealed in the ground and in the sea."
According to the IAA, the earliest coin exposed in the treasure is a quarter dinar minted in Palermo, Sicily in the second half of the ninth century CE.
Most of the coins though belong to the Fatimid caliphs Al-Hakim (996–1021 CE) and his son Az-Zahir (1021–1036), and were minted in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa.
Notably, the coin assemblage included no coins from the Eastern Islamic dynasties further cementing experts' certainty that it is a Fatimid treasure.