Golden secret unearthed from Roman city's ruins 'I have never been as thrilled' by a find, says UM professor leading dig in Israel

July 01, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

CAESAREA, Israel -- Stare for long at the blue sea here with Kenneth Holum, and you will find yourself in the past.

The University of Maryland professor will take you back 1,600 years, back to a great city on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, an important outpost of the Roman Empire. This is Caesarea, pride of Herod the Great, provincial capital for the Holy Land.

In A.D. 400 -- four centuries after Herod built it -- the city is comparatively quiet. It is no longer vogue to throw Christians to the lions in the amphitheater, and the sweeping invasion by Muslims -- and brutal reprisals of the Crusaders -- are yet to engulf the city. The rats with bubonic plague have not yet arrived.

Large sailing vessels seek Caesarea's harbor. The city bustles with traders, sailors, government officials, pilgrims and slaves, mingling on broad, columned streets. Small factories make farm tools and pottery. Wagers are made on the next chariot race at the hippodrome.

In a villa in the northern sprawl of the city, someone seeks to keep a quiet secret. He -- or she -- digs beneath the mosaic floor of the house, to hide a makeshift stone container. It is a fine house, but it is no mansion, not a palace that hints of the secret in the container.

The secret would be kept long after its owner died, long after the great city died around it.

The secret would be kept until last week.

"The students doing the excavation put a hand in the box expecting seeds or something. They pulled it out and had gold coins," said Olin Storvick, a Concordia (Minn.) College professor supervising the archaeological excavation under Dr. Holum. "Obviously, they put another hand in."

In all, they found 99 gold coins in the box, a discovery that now has the academicians blinking into televisions lights and posing for the news cameras as they explain the find.

"Archaeologically, there are other finds more important, other things that you might learn more from," said Dr. Holum, an associate professor of history at College Park and an expert on the decline of Roman cities.

But it is hard to retain academic coolness in the face of a gold treasure. He admits it: "I have never been as thrilled by a single find."

The University of Maryland has been helping Dr. Holum, students and other faculty dig into the archaeology of Caesarea since 1978. It is the co-sponsor, with the University of Haifa, of one of the three major excavation projects now going on at the site.

Other U.S. universities also send staff and students each summer. Six of Mr. Storvick's students from Concordia College uncovered the stone box and its hoard of coins.

They have returned to the United States. Their discovery came on the day before they finished a four-week stint digging under the hot Mediterranean sun.

Better than fiction

"It was something special for those kids. You couldn't have written a novel to work out better," said Aaron Levin, a Baltimorean spending two months at Caesarea as official photographer of the excavation.

Most of the students' finds are not so flashy. But Caesarea is good place to work, said Dr. Holum, who comes from Silver Spring to spend each summer in Israel overseeing the project.

"In antiquity, it must have been a pretty spectacular place," he said. "It's a major research opportunity for faculty and students."

Testament to this is that volunteers pay $350 a week for their room, board and the privilege of scraping the dirt. The "dig" draws a mix of serious archaeology students and others who just want the experience or fun of a working vacation in the sun.

"There's a purpose to this. You know that you have a lot of sand and dirt, but under it there is something," said Adam Zolot, 24, a student at the University of Colorado, as he swept a mosaic floor uncovered yesterday.

"There's a lot of enjoyment in discovery," said Ryan Heilman, 20, of Gardenville in Baltimore.

The senior at UMBC had been digging down beside a stone wall when he found the mosaic. "I never expected it. You look for something, and you find something completely different."

The volunteers live in dormitories near the Caesarea ruins, 30 miles north of Tel Aviv, and there is a youthful camp spirit about the work.

"Sure, it's a blast," said John Wallrodt, 27, of Arbutus, a senior in ancient history at UMBC. "You get up at 4:45 a.m. You're out here at first daylight and work till lunchtime. They you take a swim in the Mediterranean, clean some pottery. You get a great sunset at dinner, and a history lecture and maybe a few beers at the 'beach club' at night."

Histories intersect

The volunteers leave with deep tans and some good memories, while Dr. Holum and the other faculty members try to make sense out of what has been uncovered each summer.

Caesarea is particularly confusing for archaeologists, said Dr. Holum, because of the many layers of history there.

The port was founded by Phoenicians, and then became a great Roman city with a stunning spurt of building by Herod two decades before Jesus.

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