The saying, "Any port in a storm" was certainly not true of Dor harbour 20 miles south of Haifa on the coast of Palestine. As a refuge it was one of the few really excellent harbours on the coast of Israel, protected by a chain of islands nearly a half a mile long which provided a natural breakwater. Many ships, caught in stormy weather in the coastal waters must have run for shelter in Dor harbour.
Not all of them made it.
Although the harbour entrance was broad enough, the water leading up to it was shallow so that in any sort of bad weather the sea around Dor became a maelstrom of breaking waves which could pick up the relatively small vessels of those days and toss them around uncontrollably. Even worse, the turmoil of the sea hid the constantly shifting sandbars which lay just below the surface and a ship within a few yards of safety could be caught and smashed to pieces within minutes.
"We had only just arrived," wrote the Chevalier d'Arvieux in 1664, "when a large Greek boat laden with Cypriot wine and cheese, bound for Egypt, ran aground in a storm upon the coast; it no sooner struck upon the shelves of sand that are upon the cast than the waves broke it in pieces. All the crew escaped to land, but the cheeses were left in the sea and the casks of wine rolled along with the surges."
Fourteen shipwrecks have so far been identified at the entrance to the harbour, none of them more than 12 feet below the surface. Winter storms that erode the coastal sandbanks uncovered them one after another over the last quarter of a century.
In the last season a joint team of Israeli and British divers has investigated two of these wrecks. One was a Byzantine merchantman uncovered with five others in 1991, the other was thought at first to be the wreck referred to by the Chevalier d'Arvieux, but which in fact proved to be a late 19th century wreck.
The Byzantine ship was marked by approximately two tons of dark grey ballast stones spread over an area 20 x 24 feet. It was hoped that large portions of the hull might be preserved beneath the stones, but this proved not to be the case. Only two section of planking, 10 x 9 feet in total were found, and it became apparent that when it was wrecked, the vessel must have tilted over onto its side, spilling the ballast so that none of the keel was preserved, only part of the side of the ship.
However what remained preserved some interesting construction techniques. Instead of laying down the framework of keel and ribs and then cladding it with planks, it appears that this ship was built "shell-first". The planks were joined together with hundreds of loose mortice and tenon joints, set apparently at random 5-18 inches apart. Ribs were then added to the frame as strengtheners and the seams caulked in the traditional fashion.
More interesting, however, is the cargo the ship was carrying. Nearly 200 lbs of pottery fragments were found, some of them amphorae and others tiles. The amphorae were made in Palestine and date to approximately AD 570. The inner side of the sherds was coated with a resinous pitch, a clear indication that these amphorae carried wine. The amphorae were coated with pitch in order to prevent the wine evaporating, a precaution unnecessary when it was oil being carried. To confirm this, grape pips were found stuck in the pitch. This is the first proof ever found that the famed Holy Land wines were, as ancient writers reported, exported from Palestine.
The grey stone of the ballast has been identified as marble schist, which is deinitely not a Palestinian stone. It provides evidence that the ship came from outside Palestine and was, therefore, an international trader. As similar amphorae have been found as far away as Tarraco in Spain and Apollinia in Libya, this shows us the breadth of the trade.
The second wreck is probably of less interest to my readers. The ballast consisted in part of floor tiles which could be sold and replaced by profitable cargo. Two wooden crates close to the sternpost of the ship appear to have been filled with concrete in order to improve the handling of the ship.
The pottery styles and artifacts found in the wreck show clearly that the ship dates to the late 19th century. It will have to wait another couple of centuries before it is old enough to merit exhaustive treatment in these pages. I must admit, though, that I look forward to writing that article. I hope you will be around to read it!