Underwater Fortress Found: Ancient Fort Linked to Bloody Biblical Battles Found Off Coast of Israel
Underwater archaeology is helping to transform our knowledge of the ancient world. In Israel, maritime archaeologists have discovered a 2,200-year-old Hellenistic fortress linked to biblical battles. The discovery is helping us to understand Hellenistic military fortifications and strategies and the impact of rising sea levels on ancient communities.
The find was made at Tel Dor, which “overlooks the eastern Mediterranean on the southern Levantine coastline of Israel,” as the researchers wrote in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology. It is now known as the beach of Kibbutz Nahsholim and is due south of the bustling city of Haifa. There is a natural harbor there and that means that it was excellent for the anchorage of ships. Tel Dor is a site that has revealed evidence of Phoenician, Hebrew, Roman, and Byzantine occupation and it has a long and often bloody history.
Prof. Assaf Yasur-Landau and Ehud Arkin Shalev from Haifa University teamed up with the American Prof. Thomas Levy of the University of California to investigate the bay for archaeological remains. Marine archaeology is very challenging and requires the removal of tons of sand from a location. To make matters worse, the sea sands regularly shift, and this can be very frustrating for archaeologists.
Eolianite beach at Dor, Israel. (Daniel Ventura/CC BY SA 3.0)
The Underwater Hellenistic Fortress
Some months back, the team came across three stones that had once formed part of a small wall. Haaretz quotes Prof. Yasur-Landau, as stating that “when we started excavating, we saw that these three stones were actually standing on a huge amount of neatly hewn stones.”
They knew that they had found something momentous and using historical sources and previous examples, they estimated that it was some sort of fortress from the Hellenistic period. It was dated to approximately 2,200 years ago, based on artifacts found and the documentary evidence.
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To understand the find we need to understand that the sea level has risen several feet over the millennia and the construction was once located on the shore. The maritime archaeologists had uncovered the remains of a defensive structure that was once part of a coastal defense network.
According to Haaretz, “the fortification is about 20 meters [65.6 ft.] from the shore and two meters (6ft) underwater.” Once it was two stories high but much of the upper story is lost and the structure measured 60 by 120 feet (approximately 20 by 40 meters). Some stones have wooden post holes that may have been used for wooden platforms upon which catapults were placed.
Much of the Tel Dor archaeological site is on land. (Bukvoed/CC BY 3.0)
A bloody time
We know much about the turbulent history of Tel Dor from the Book of Maccabees in the Bible. It appears that the fortress was built by a Hellenistic king when the Greeks and the Jewish Hasmonaean Kingdom were battling for control of what is now Israel. It was built by the Geek monarch Diodotus Tryphon, who acted as regent for a young king of the Seleucid Dynasty before declaring himself ruler (142 BC).
The fortress was built to protect his stronghold at Tel Dor. He was one of the three rulers who vied with each other in the area, and this resulted in many bloody wars. The rival monarchs were the “Seleucid kings Diodotus Tryphon and Demetrius, and Jonathan Apphus, ruler of Judea,” according to Haaretz. Details of these battles are found in the bible and portray Diodotus Tryphon as a cruel and treacherous ruler.
A coin depicting Tryphon. (Uploadalt/CC BY SA 3.0)
Tryphon was eventually besieged at Tel Dor by a new Seleucid king. Some missiles believed to be slingshots and arrowheads have been found that date back to the siege of Dor and some bear the marking “victory over Tryphon”, according to Haaretz. Antiochus VII Sidetes eventually seized the fortress and the port. Tryphon escaped but ultimately committed suicide in 138 BC.
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Learning from the Underwater Hellenistic Fortress
Much of the fortress built by the Hellenistic monarch has been found on the coast. However, the walls found in the bay are transforming what we know about Hellenistic fortifications. It seems that the wall and fortifications found by the maritime archaeologists were part of the first line of defense on the south side of the city and the walls on the shore were part of the inner defenses.
The area between the inner and the outer walls would have been a ‘kill-zone’ where attackers would have been easy targets for soldiers on the walls.
Tel Dor was occupied by the Seleucids and the Romans, but the fortress did not stand long because of storms and rising sea levels. By the first century AD, much of the fortress was underneath the waves of the bay.
Some previous excavations on land and close to the shore at Tel Dor. (University of Washington)
The study at Tel Dor and the bay are part of a large academic research project to understand the impact of rising sea waters on communities and how they can defend themselves against this often-cataclysmic natural phenomenon.
Top image: Archaeologists examine the remains of an ancient fortress off the coast of Dor Beach, Israel, March 19, 2019. Credit: Hagai Nativ / Haaretz
By Ed Whelan