A sword likely dating from the period in which the Crusaders and Muslim forces fought for control of the Holy Land was brought ashore last Thursday by a scuba diver swimming off the northern Israeli Mediterranean coast. In remarkably good condition, the ancient artifact of war was found 200 meters (650 feet) offshore at a depth of 4 meters.
In fact it had been first observed by lying in the water by Dr. Udi Galili, who is studying the Atlit area and once headed the maritime antiquities department at the Israel Antiquities Authority, but it was the diver, Shlomi Katzin, who brought it to shore.
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It was completely encrusted with shells. That makes it difficult to say more about the sword other than that it appears intact even after roughly 1,000 years, explains Kobi Sharvit, who directs the Israel Antiquities Authority’s marine archaeology unit. But the archaeologists’ suspicion is that it had been dropped into the sea by a Crusader. And why is that, given that nothing but its general shape and shells are visible?
A sword in the sea
The Mediterranean is now notoriously suffering from massive over-fishing, pollution and climate change. Not many fish may be seen off Israel’s Carmel coast in the north, but Atlit resident Katzin dove there anyway and spotted the sword, as well as other ancient artifacts, on the seabed.
The Israel Antiquities Authority isn’t saying exactly where Katzin noticed the artifacts, out of understandable concern that snorkeling antiquities thieves would descend into the sea in droves. And in this case, the specific site is an anchorage site going back to at least the Bronze Age, 4,000 years ago.
Other finds there include stone anchors from that time, iron anchors from the Roman period and artifacts from the Byzantine time. And while the meter-long sword was found in association with artifacts from thousands of years of seafaring, it was a stand-alone find, Sharvit says. No, they didn’t find a Crusader ship or armor or anything else with it.
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Evidently serendipity played a role. Katzin was diving there precisely when the movement of the waves revealed the sword. “Because of the dynamics of shallow water, the sand keeps moving,” Sharvit explains. “Each time, a new area is exposed.”
In fact, Katzin was worried that the sword would be lost to posterity again as the sand continued to swirl, or that it would be found by someone else and stolen. He took the sword himself and contacted the antiquities authority, which made the find public on Monday.
To make it clear, the archaeologists now know about the ancient anchorage site not only from Katzin’s dip in the sea. They conduct an annual survey of shallow water off Israel, precisely to see what is exposed each time. This particular site was found in June. It had served for at least 3,000 years not as a port but as a somewhat safe harbor in a storm.
“The Carmel coast contains many natural coves that provided shelter for ancient ships in a storm,” Sharvit says, adding that the larger coves developed into their own port cities, such as Dor and Atlit.
A taste for the straight sword
Noting that he doesn’t know its exact size and that it’s completely covered by encrustations, it can’t be classified at this stage, explains Sa’ar Nudel, a world-renowned expert on Crusader weaponry. So why exactly do the archaeologists suspect it was Crusader?
The Crusades to the Holy Land, as distinguished from other Christian crusades for other purposes, aimed to regain Jerusalem and its surroundings from Islamic rule. The missions began in 1095 with an “armed pilgrimage” called by Pope Urban II. They ended in defeat in 1291.
But as explained by Rafi Lewis, an archaeologist and expert on the medieval period who wasn’t involved in this discovery (and hasn’t seen the sword), while some swords wielded by Crusader knights were magnificent artifacts made by highly skilled craftsmen, at first glance Muslim and Crusader swords were similar.
The Crusaders and the Muslim Ayyubids and Mamluks all tended to prefer straight swords, which could range from about 73 centimeters to about 90 centimeters (29 to 35 inches) in length. There may be variation in the blade length and the form of the pommel, which balances the sword. So basically, the forces sparring over the Holy Land were using similar, quite sophisticated and even graceful weaponry for their slashing and hacking, Lewis explains. The cross guard – the bar at right angles to the blade which is also known as a quillon – could be a distinguishing feature as well.
The cross guard was not for decoration. It was important that the fighter’s hand not slide over the blade when attacking, especially while on horseback: The cross guard is what prevents that from happening, which explains why although it did evolve somewhat, it did not change in a big way. If it works and holds back a warrior’s hand even after the blade is slippery from the enemy’s blood, one doesn’t monkey with it, Lewis explains.
“The basic shape of the weapon, a straight sword, didn’t evolve much from the time of the Vikings to the 14th century,” he sums it up.
Sharvit agrees that we can’t know who wielded it against whom until further research, including scanning. But its dimensions are characteristic of Crusader swords and, most importantly, it was found 200 meters in the sea and the Muslim forces didn’t come by sea, he says. “They destroyed the coastal cities so the Crusaders couldn’t return and reconquer the Holy Land,” he notes.
The Muslims also built strongholds along the coast of what is today Israel to be alert to the approach of enemy ships. And no, he doesn’t believe the sword could have been dropped on shore by a Muslim warrior and then drifted 200 meters out to sea. It’s too heavy.
“It would have been covered with sand and hidden, which is exactly why it was so magnificently preserved,” he adds.
Which it is, but that still doesn’t mean we know who used it, and against whom, if at all. Lewis stresses that he hasn’t seen the sword in question, but going by its appearance in the media, it probably dates to the 13th century at the earliest.
And maybe it was accidently dropped into the sea by a knight as a Crusader ship sought shelter from a storm. Or perhaps the entire boat sank almost a thousand years ago, and we just haven’t found the rest of it yet. But the day is young.
Or maybe it belonged to someone else entirely. Scans, it is hoped, will tell.