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Israeli diver finds rare artifact

David Shalom

YAVNE-YAM, Israel (21 July 2008) — A rare 2,500-year-old marble discus was found last week by an Israeli lifeguard diving in the underwater antiquities site of Yavne-Yam, an ancient port city settled in the middle Bronze Age and inhabited until the Middle Ages. (Today, the beach is named for the nearby kibbutz of Palmahim.)

The convex object is believed to have been fixed to the front of ancient ships as a talisman, its shape and painted circles connoting the pupil of a forward-looking and vigilant eye to protect mariners from misfortune.

Kobi Sharvit, director of the Marine Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, explained it is known from drawings on pottery vessels, coins and other historic sources from the 5th century BC that this model was very common on the bows of ships and was used to protect them from the evil eye, acting as a pair of eyes to aid navigation and warn of dangers.

Variants of the decoration are still common on modern boats in Portugal, Greece and other coastal countries, and eye-shaped amulets and good luck charms are extremely common throughout the Mediterranean.

Although believed to have been commonly used in the region, the object — Ophtalmoi in Greek — is surprisingly rare, and only three have been found before, all in the Mediterranean.

Two, dating to the same period, were recovered from an ancient Greek cargo shipwreck found off Tektas Burnu along Turkey’s western coast, and another one was found off Israel’s northern coast around the Carmel.

Israel’s sea coast is 200 kilometers long (about 124 miles) and 500 meters wide (about three-tenths of a mile); the waters are rich with evidence of ancient history and cultures, but this underwater heritage is endangered by construction of wave breaks, ports and marinas, as well as by contractors dredging sand for the construction industry.

Scuba looters

Scuba diving has become an increasingly popular sport in recent years, and most of the estimated 100,000 divers are in it for the fun.

But the authority worries that others are removing antiquities illegally for sale to dealers or private collectors.

Last month, inspectors seized dozens of ancient artifacts stolen from underwater antiquities sites in northern Israel.

Among the artifacts found in a Haifa house were Roman-era bronze figurines, pottery and glass vessels and three anchors from ancient ships.

There are around 30,000 known antiquities sites in Israel, most of them open-air and unguarded.

Hundreds of sites are damaged every year by robbers looking for valuable artifacts for sale or collection.

Thieves frequently use metal detectors to locate ancient coins or other valuables.

Many ancient graves are desecrated, their contents plundered and sold.

The authority has a special unit for preventing antiquities robbery, as well as an online form for reporting stolen artifacts.

Ironically, one pilferer of Israeli archaeology was apparently Moshe Dayan, renowned Israeli general and later political figure.

Bitten by the antiquities bug in the early 1950s, Dayan had a deep, genuine passion for archaeology but was believed to have taken liberties with (and artifacts from) dozens of sites throughout the country in Israel’s early decades.

Some of his collections were sold and others donated after his death in 1981.

So sun-hats off to David Shalom, the lifeguard who found the object and handed it over to the Antiquities Authority.

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