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Was Ashkelon an Ancient Nude Beach? (2001)

Ashkelon is a city in southern Israel, on the Mediterranean Sea, along a long sandy coast with no natural bays or harbors. Although there are no springs or rivers atAshkelon, the area is rich in underground fresh water and many ancient wells dot the area. The site of the ancient city is today a beautiful national park combining an archaeological site and a scenic beach strip.

Recently a local diver uncovered two ancient bronze statuettes in the waters of Ashkelon, and handed them to the Israel Antiquities Authority. One statuette depicts the goddess Aphrodite. She is all naked, except for her sandal, which she is in a position of taking it off.

A second statuette, also of bronze, is of an uncircumcised nude male god, bearing a tall basket on his head.

These figurines seem to be private idols for worship, probabl

y by sailors. Facing daily dangers on the sea, it seems probable to expect sailors to own protective figurines for a divine protection. Such sculptures were also common on land, but made in a larger scale, as they were intended for public rather than for personal use.

bronze statuette found of the coast of AshkelonTwo bronze statuettes found of the coast of Ashkelon.Two bronze statuettes found of the coast of Ashkelon. They were probably personal protective figurines, used by Roman period sailors. The dangers of sea travel in antiquity are well recorded in ancient sources, as for example in the journey of Paul to Rome:  13When a gentle south wind began to blow, they thought they had obtained what they wanted; so they weighed anchor and sailed along theshore of Crete. 14Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the “northeaster,” swept down from the island. 15The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. 17When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. 18We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. (Acts 27:13-18).

SEARCHING FOR THE ANIENT HARBOR

Following the accidental find of the statuettes, the IAA initiated a large scale survey of sea shore in the vicinity of ancient Ashkelon. One of the main tasks was to track the ancient harbor of the city. Up to that time, no evidence for its existence had been recorded. The survey too failed to detect any remains of the harbor but it revealed a large amount of  artifacts: a sunken cargo of lead ingots weighing 3.5 tons, a lead oven,  many grinding stones, a marble head, a marble Sheep statue, two iron anchors, decorated bronze ladles, scales, lamps, nails, and a 80cm long trumpet.

Portion of a marble statue of a sheep found off the coast of Ashkelon

The IAA marine archaeologists Udi Galili and Kobi Sharvit who conducted the survey reached interesting conclusions on the nature of the ancient harbor of Ashkelon. They hold the view that, with the absence of a harbor and yet the finding of many artifacts under water, it seems that Ashkelon simply did NOT have a proper port in antiquity. Ships were loaded and unloaded of their commodities by small vessels. In this dangerous process cargo sometimes fell in to the water and sank.

A view of Ashkelon beach today. Lacking any natural harbor, marine archaeologists estimate the ships in antiquity transported goods to the land and back using smaller vessels.

A view of Ashkelon beach today. Lacking any natural harbor, marine archaeologists estimate the ships in antiquity transported goods to the land and back using smaller vessels.

Diagram of the offshore region of Ashkelon