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Digging deep off Israel’s coast

July 5, 2013

University of Rhode Island History students Morgan Breene and Abigail Casavant return take a break from excavating underwater in the ancient port of Akko. In the distance, URI student Emma Heidtman prepares to enter the square. (Photo courtesy Bridget Buxton)

KINGSTON—The shores of Israel have been center stage for many of history’s most iconic cultures and events, from Ancient Roman occupation in the time of Jesus to the clashing armies of the Crusades. More recently, University of Rhode Island Professors Bridget Buxton and William Krieger have traveled to the port city of Akko to uncover an ancient harbor dating as far back as the third century B.C., as well as a number of 19th century shipwrecks.

Buxton and Krieger, working in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) through funding from URI and other organizations, have excavated a number of harbor structures in the waters near Akko. As they removed more sand and underwater debris, the archaeologists discovered that the Hellenistic harbor walls, dating as far back as the third century B.C., were much larger than anticipated.
“The whole situation is very puzzling,” said Buxton. “Here we have a huge ancient port facility that is completely submerged and buried under the sea floor, a layer of Hellenistic pottery and debris, and then a very dense thick layer of Late Roman-Byzantine ceramics, broken shells, and pebbles. For most of the time, we were digging through more broken pottery and ancient glassware than actual sand, even out in the middle of the harbor!”
Working with a group of URI students, Buxton and Krieger have hypothesized that the debris might be evidence of an ancient earthquake or tsunami at the time. Because their work is unfinished, however, no definitive answer for the artifacts’ distribution on the sea floor can be determined.
“We still need to do a lot of work to understand exactly what happened at Akko to put the Hellenistic port facilities so far below the modern sea level,” said Buxton. “We are also curious about the historical consequences of some large earthquakes in this area in the sixth and eighth centuries.”
The life of an archaeologist, however, is not just flashy discoveries and appearances in National Geographic magazines. Much behind-the-scenes work, particularly to obtain requisite funding, takes place.
“The archaeological work is actually the easiest and most fun part of the entire job, but the hard part is raising money to get the work done!” said Buxton. “So much of what we are trying to do is outside the usual parameters of major research grants. We rely heavily on private support and also the generosity of small foundations that specialize in underwater archaeology and exploration.”
“However, I believe we accomplish wonderful things with what we have,” she added.
Buxton’s team also faced a number of challenges during excavation itself, discovering that, because of dredging activity in nearby Haifa, a number of the shipwrecks they had hoped to examine were buried deeper than expected.
“Rather than spend time digging them out and doing what the sea will soon accomplish on its own, we left these project goals to be completed later by our Israeli colleagues,” said Buxton. “It is frustrating sometimes when you can’t get instant results, but when you work in the sea, you always have to realize that Mother Nature is the one who sets the schedule, not you.”
Buxton heaped much praise on her student researchers, noting that the work they have carried out in Akko, from actual excavation to data recording and analysis, has been crucial to the project’s overall success.
“I am so proud in particular of the research being conducted by the students,” said Buxton. “There is going to be publication-quality, original research about important, new archaeological discoveries and major issues in cultural heritage coming from these student projects.”
Buxton stated that her team is currently exploring avenues through which the public can view and better understand the archaeology being researched at Akko.
“Archaeo-tourism is critical to the future of Akko,” said Buxton. “There is an organization called the Old Acre Development Company that is devoted to developing the town’s tourism potential in collaboration with the local people, and archaeology is a huge part of that; the IAA’s Akko Conservation Center is also very engaged in trying to bring benefits to the local community.”
Beyond the archaeological research itself, Buxton is grateful to URI, the IAA and other organizations which have supported their project because of the cultural experiences research students gain during their time underwater.
“We are giving practical experience to the next generation of historians and archaeologists,” said Buxton. “We are taking URI students to explore Israel while living in the Old City of Akko, where the population is 95 percent Arab, and we are developing important collaborations and friendships with our Israeli colleagues in archaeology and the marine sciences. I think the educated public understands the value of these things.”
“I am so happy that [URI] has been able to help out over the last few years, including by providing access to New England-made underwater technologies from companies such as SyQwest and JWFisher,” she continued. “In return, URI scholars and students have the opportunity to conduct research in one of the most amazing places in the world; a UNESCO world heritage site and major maritime capital for half a dozen great empires over the centuries.”
Buxton has been adamant, however, that URI’s work does not end with excavations or the discovery of a handful of artifacts. Preservation is key.
“There is such a huge problem with coastal erosion and winter storms destroying ancient shipwrecks and submerged settlements before the IAA archaeologists can even get to them,” said Buxton. “They are basically just two guys with a 21-foot fishing boat responsible for protecting the underwater cultural heritage of the entire coastline of Israel!”
The goal of her research is develop future programs that preserve and protect Israel’s underwater cultural heritage, regardless of time period.
“My long-term dream is to help develop a kind of response team consisting of volunteers and donors, both experts and students and members of the public, who can support Israel in the aftermath of major storms when there can be dozens of irreplaceable sites exposed in the surf zone that need immediate recording or rescue archaeology,” said Buxton. “These are the kinds of unplanned scenarios where sometimes a couple of thousand dollars and a few volunteer divers really count.”
“[Such a team] can accomplish something so much more urgent and important than a big NEH grant for a specific project planned for years in advance,” she continued.” We have far more than a lifetime’s work to do just in and around Akko alone, but our most important task will always be to ensure the region’s underwater cultural heritage survives for the benefit of future generations as well.”


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