Crusader Shipwreck, Gold Found by Diving Archaeologists in Israel

As the Muslims breached the walls of Acre, hoards of gold coins sank with their fleeing masters to the bottom of the sea, and have now been found by marine archaeologists.

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A glazed crusader bowl with bird decoration, found in the marine excavation at Acre. Imported from Paphos, Cyprus.
A glazed crusader bowl with bird decoration, found in the marine excavation at Acre. Imported from Paphos, Cyprus.Credit: Michal Artzy
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

The long-lost wreck of a crusader ship and sunken cargos dating to the 13th century C.E. have been found in the bay of the crusader stronghold city Acre, in northern Israel.

Gold florins found in Acre harbor by diving archaeologists.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Gold coins dating to the destruction of the crusader bastion in 1291 C.E., when the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt stormed it in a struggle to wrest the Holy Land from the crusaders, were also found in the water by the archaeologists, led by Dr. Ehud Galili and Prof. Michal Artzy from Haifa University.

Meanwhile, on land in Acre, an excavation led by Haifa University's Prof. Adrian Boas has found the long-lost headquarters of the Teutonic Order on the eastern side of the city, outside the Ottoman walls.

Iron metalwork from crusader era in Acre.Credit: Zinman Institute of the University of Haifa and the Deutsche Orden

'Deus Vult'

Beginning with the First Crusade in 1096 C.E. and continuing for two centuries, Christian armies crossed back and forth between Europe and the Middle East, vying against Muslim forces. Control over Jerusalem was a key issue.

Acre became a crucial landing point for tens of thousands of knights and foot soldiers charging into the Holy Land shouting “Deus vult” (God wills it) as their battle cry.

Glazed crusader bowl with fish decoration. Imported from Paphos, Cyprus.Credit: Michal Artzy

Slashing their way through the Holy Land, and not caviling at wielding swords and battle-axes against mere bystanders too, the crusaders captured Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099. They would go on to create a kingdom along a 579-kilometer-long strip of land stretching from Lebanon southward through modern-day Israel and western Jordan down to the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea.

Yet the strife never ceased and Jerusalem fell again, this time to the armies of Saladin, on October 2, 1187. Acre then replaced Jerusalem as the capital of the crusader kingdom.

In fact, in 2011, archaeologists unveiled the crusader city, remarkably intact, beneath the Ottoman-era town. the crusader buildings had last been used by in 1291, the year a Muslim army from Egypt defeated Acre's Christian garrison and leveled the city.

Excavation trench near the Muslim cemetery, eastern AcreCredit: Zinman Institute of the University of Haifa and the Deutsche Orden

Sugar and spice

The seaport of Acre, which retains its name from St. Jean d'Arc (Saint John of Acre) is situated at the northern point of the yawning crescent-shaped bay of Haifa.

Glazed Crusader bowl and horseshoe, imported from Europe.Credit: Michal Artzy

By the 13th century C.E., Acre had become a major center of international trade, exporting sugar, spices, glass, textiles and more to Europe; weapons, metals, timber, armors, horses and horseshoes were imported to the Holy Land. Transport ships capable of carrying horses directly from southern Europe to Acre, provided a lifeline for the "crusader states," a colonial feudal structure concentrated around ports in the Holy Land.

Glazed Crusader bowl with human face, found in Acre.Credit: Michal Artzy

In the bay itself, the marine archaeologists discovered a crusader shipwreck that was damaged by dredging while building the modern harbor. All that remain are sections of the wooden hull, the keel and some wooden planks covered with ballast. Carbon-14 testing of the hull dates the wreck to 1062-1250 C.E., the crusader era.

Other underwater finds included ceramic jugs and bowls imported from Cyprus, Syria and southern Italy, which either sank, or was damaged cargo thrown overboard.

Metal objects, mostly made of iron, such as anchors, nails and corroded and encrusted iron were also found. But the piece de resistance was a collection of gold coins that may have fallen into the sea during desperate flight from the beleaguered city.

Glazed crusader bowl with the mark of St.Peter's key, found in crusader Acre.Credit: Michal Artzy

Paying for escape

Near the harbor entrance, the divers found a hoard of 30 gold coins, which were subsequently identified by coins expert Robert Kool of the Israel Antiquities Authority as Florentine “florins,” minted by the Italian republic of Florence from 1252 C.E.

Gold coin issued by John III, Holy Emperor of Nicaea III (1222-1254 C.E.), found in Acre.Credit: Zinman Institute of the University of Haifa and the Deutsche Orden

The gold coins attributed to the republic of Florence raise an interesting historical episode. It was in the spring of 1291 that a vast army of more then 100,000 cavalry and foot soldiers under the new Mamluk sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil came to Acre, to boot the Crusaders out of the Holy Land once and for all.

After showering the crusader defenders with stones and fire pots, they stormed the fortress, cutting down everything in their path, slaughtering the knights in bands. Desperate to escape the onslaught, the defenders and noncombatant fled to the harbor, where small boats waited to rescue them.

A grapnel anchor found in Acre harbor by marine archaeologists.Credit: Ehud Galili

The medieval eyewitness “Templar of Tyre” relates that a few noble ladies and merchants escaped by bribing owners of small boats with jewelry and gold to be ferried offshore to Venetian ships heading for Cyprus. Many however drowned with their precious possessions, some of which may now have been found.

Meanwhile a desperate standoff developed at the castle of the Templars in the northwestern part of the city. The barricaded knights fought valiantly for several days, but the Mamluks were undermining their defenses, digging underneath the castle. The foundation of the castle suddenly collapsed burying the knights forever. As the dust and clamor of war settled, the flag of the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt flew over the port.

Fearing the crusaders' return, the Mamluks dismantled the harbor, the citys walls, castles and buildings, leaving the seaport in a pile of ruins that would remain abandoned for hundreds of years. In the 16th century, the Ottomans captured the port and rebuilt the city, surrounding it with new walls.

Finding the Teutonic Headquarters

Akko bowls, a hit among the warrior monks.Credit: Zinman Institute of the University of Haifa and the Deutsche Orden

Some 800 years later, the Deutsche Orden, as the Teutonic Order is known today in German, returned to the Holy Land, to carry out social work and to search for their original headquarters in Acre.

The original founders of the Teutonic Order were German knights from Lübeck and Bremen who had joined the Crusader army of Friedrich Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, who drowned to death in today's Turkey.

Grief-stricken over the loss of their king, most of his army dispersed. But two contingents of the German knights pressed on, joining the forces of the Lionheart, Richard I, King of England, and Philippe II of France in besieging Acre in 1190-91 C.E.

They set up a field hospital, using sails from ships to make tents, and when the city was taken, on July 12, 1191, Richard I rewarded them with land in Acre's east, not far from were their camp had been, for the establishment of a permanent hospital and headquarters.

Map showing the boundaries of the crusader city and Teutonic Order quarters in Acre.Credit: Zinman Institute of the University of Haifa and the Deutsche Orden

On this plot of land, the German knights built a hospital, a church, a chapel, a cemetery and other buildings and organized as a hospital order, in effect functioning as a hospice for pilgrims and poor.

Seven years later, in 1198, the Teutonic Knights became a military order living a monastic life. Adopting the rule and costume based on those of the Templars and Hospitallers, they received money and other support from the papacy in Rome.

As the order grew in importance and influence, estates and castles, such as Montfort, were built in the Crusader Kingdom in the Holy Land, but they never stopped using the hospital in Acre as their headquarters. The Order's administration remained in Acre, with only certain aspects, such as the archive and perhaps treasury, was moved to Montfort.

However, after the Ottoman conquest of Acre in the 16th century C.E., everything outside the new city walls was leveled, including the Teutonic compound, and in the 20th century the modern city developed on top of the crusader ruins, leaving the remains of the former Teutonic Order buried in the eastern side of the city until this day.

The location of the headquarters had been unknown. But after studying 17th century maps of Acre, the archaeologists decided to search in the southeastern parts of the “wall-less” city, and began excavating in between buildings on open plots near a Muslim cemetery and an abandoned bakery.

Excavation trench: Crusader remains found in Acre.Credit: Courtesy of the Zinman Institute of the University of Haifa and the Deutsche Orden

In their very first digging season, they found the floor level of collapsed Crusader buildings, covered in a layer of black ashy deposits 30 centimeters thick.

“We had found the destruction layer of 1291,” says Boas, who co-directed the excavations together with Georg Philipp Meloni of the Deutsche Orden.

Ascetic ceramics

The excavators also found a large quantity of coins from all periods of occupation in Acre. Of these, the most remarkable was gold coinage dating to the rule of John III, Holy Emperor of Nicaea III (issued between 1222-1254 C.E.) And they found complete ceramic vessels, glazed bowls as well as vessels used in the manufacture of sugar (an ingredient in medications back then), as well as metal objects, such as horseshoes and nails.

A corroded iron horseshoe found in crusader Acre, of a style made in Europe.Credit: Zinman Institute of the University of Haifa and the Deutsche Orden

One group of vessels that stood out in the ceramic assemblage was simple unglazed jugs and bowls that have become known as "Acre bowls," for the sheer quantity found therein the Hospitallers compound. Though also found in other crusader sites, this type of aesthetically ascetic ceramic ware is not common in sites dating to the Middle Ages, Boas says. The monastic order may have preferred them in order to keep things simple, abstaining from all kinds of luxury.

But the clue that the Teutonic Orders headquarters had been found was two glazed bowls with the Teutonic emblem.

“The Teutonic emblem, which the Templars tried to prevent them from using, basically takes two forms,” Boas explains. “It is either a triangular shield with a T inside, or a circle with a T, with the circle standing for Ordo and the T standing for Teutonicus – Teutonic Order. "Such emblems appear on stones and on ceramics in numerous Teutonic sites in the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, and across Europe. “That more or less settled the [identification of this] location [as that] of the Teutonic headquarters,” Boas says.

Before Acre fell into the hands of the Mamluk Sultan in 1291, the Grand Master withdrew to Venice along with the archive and treasure, from where he continued to direct the crusade against the Muslims. Only in 1309 did he abandon the war in the East and move to Prussia, bolstering the Teutonic kingdom in Europe.

Although the Teutonic compound was backfilled after the excavations, visitors can still see remains from the monastic military order's life, including the Hospitallers' quarters, the knights' hall and a huge room with a central courtyard, all dating back to the time of crusader Acre and the great power struggle between Muslims and Christians that defined the history of the Near East.


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