Early Christian Ring Found in Third-Century Shipwreck Off of Israel

Gold ring with green gemstone carved with shepherd image
The ring bears an image of a shepherd boy with a sheep or ram on his shoulders, symbolizing Jesus as the “Good Shepherd.” Dafna Gazit / Israel Antiquities Authority

Marine archaeologists investigating two shipwrecks off the coast of the ancient port city of Caesarea in what’s now Israel discovered a gold ring bearing a “Good Shepherd” figure used by early Christians. The ring was part of a treasure trove found on a third-century ship that also included Roman coins, bells used to ward off evil spirits, pottery and figurines.

In the third century, Caesarea, located about 35 miles north of modern Tel Aviv, was an important hub for the Roman Empire and home to people of varied ethnicities and religions, Helena Sokolov, a curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), tells Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“This was a period when Christianity was just in its beginning, but definitely growing and developing, especially in mixed cities like Caesarea,” she says.

The octagonal ring is made of gold with a green gemstone. A figure of a young shepherd boy with a ram or sheep on his shoulders is carved into the stone. The ring’s small size suggests it may have belonged to a woman. Sokolov says the image of Jesus as a shepherd tending to his flock was common in early Christianity, but it was unusual to find it on a ring.

Per the Jerusalem Post’s Rossella Tercatin, Caesarea is mentioned several times in the New Testament, including a section in which the apostle Peter baptizes the Roman centurion Cornelius in the city.

“This was the first instance of a non-Jew being accepted into the Christian community,” says IAA maritime archaeologist Jacob Sharvit in a statement. “From here, the Christian religion began to be disseminated across the world.”

A bronze eagle figurine symbolizing Roman rule and another statuette wearing a comic mask and shaped like a dancer from Roman theater were also among the treasures.

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The archaeologists found the objects while conducting an underwater survey of two different ships that both sunk in the same spot about 1,000 years apart: the third-century ship and a vessel dated to the 14th century. 

“The ships were probably anchored nearby and were wrecked by a storm,” say Sharvit and fellow IAA maritime archaeologist Dror Planer in the statement. “They may have been anchored offshore after getting into difficulty, or fearing stormy weather because sailors know well that mooring in shallow, open water outside of a port is dangerous and prone to disaster.”

The later wreck held a large hoard of silver coins dated between 1206 to 1290 C.E., and was captured Caesarea from the Crusaders in 1265. 

Also among the discoveries from the shipwrecks was a red gemstone engraved with a tiny image of a lyre, reports Amy Spiro for the Times of Israel. The lyre is known as “David’s Harp” in the Jewish tradition and is also associated with Apollo, the sun god, in Greek mythology. The jewel was probably once set in a ring.

The researchers found pieces of the ships, including bronze nails, lead pipes from a bilge pump and parts of a large iron anchor, likely broken in a storm. Both wrecks were located only about 13 feet underwater.

“Israel’s coasts are rich in sites and finds that are immensely important national and international cultural heritage assets,” says IAA Director Eli Eskozido in the statement. “They are extremely vulnerable, which is why the Israel Antiquities Authority conducts underwater surveys to locate, monitor and salvage any antiquities.”

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