It’s an age-old plot device from a scuba diving-related story: amateur divers accidentally stumble across treasure on the bottom of the ocean while out diving, and drama ensues. But of course, that sort of thing wouldn’t happen in real life — or would it?
There may not be any dramatic boat chases or seedy black-market bosses, but life did imitate art this week when a group of amateur divers discovered nearly 2,000 gold coins near Caesarea off of Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
The coins are estimated to date back some 900 years, from the time of the Fatimid Caliphate. This dynasty ruled the North African coast from the Red Sea to the Atlantic, and had its central government in present-day Egypt. The coins are reported to be in surprisingly good condition; some of them even show teeth marks from where a previous owner tested them for authenticity. The coins are of varying denominations, including dinars, half dinars and quarter dinars.
The amateur divers practically stumbled upon the treasure while out diving, and while they first believed the coins to be toys, they quickly realized that they were genuine. They immediately alerted the authorities, which then raised the coins, all 13 pounds of them.
That the coins were found quite close together, as well as the history of Caesarea as an important port during the time of the Fatimid Caliphate, leads archeologists to speculate that it’s very likely that there’s a wreck from the period still to be discovered, perhaps a tax-collection ship returning to Egypt or a wealthy merchant ship.
Despite their discovery, the lucky divers do not get to keep any part of it. The Israel Antiquities Authorities describe the find as “priceless,” and states, like many similar laws around the world, that any antique findings made on their lands or in their waters belongs to the state, and that keeping any part of it, or failing to report it to the proper authorities is illegal. In Israel, the maximum penalty for keeping antiquities found is up to five years imprisonment.
Impressively, even after over 1,000 years on the bottom of the sea, the coins require no restoration. Because gold is a noble metal, it, unlike silver, doesn’t react with the salt in the ocean water. The Israeli authorities will now investigate the area, hoping to find the remains of the suspected wreck, or to recover any other artifacts that may be nearby.
Speculation about the amount of lost gold in the world’s oceans varies wildly, and an exact amount is near impossible to calculate. But even the more cautious estimates climb well into billions of dollars. Three shipwrecks were reportedly located in 2012 alone, the combined cargo of which is speculated to be $4.5 billion dollars.