Israeli Gas Giant Found Ancient Shipwrecks. Israel Covered It Up

Dispute ensues over access to Noble Energy's Bronze Age findings beneath Mediterranean in 2016, with researchers claiming they could reveal untold trade histories

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The Leviathan gas field, in 2019.
The Leviathan gas field, in 2019.Credit: Mark Israel Sellem
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Noble Energy, which holds the franchise for the  marine natural gas field, submitted a comprehensive environmental report to the Antiquities Authority before starting to drill in March 2016. The report included an appendix summarizing the underwater archaeological finds the company had discovered in a series of sonar scans. However, anyone who looks for this appendix will find only a white page with but a single word on it: Secret.

The archaeological survey by the Israeli oil and natural gas exploration and production giant gave rise to interesting and important finds, among them the existence of buried shipwrecks in the drilling area. However, these discoveries have been kept secret from the Israeli public and researchers interested in the area.

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The  recently refused to provide the report, on the grounds that the discoveries were found outside of Israel’s territorial waters, where the authority has no legal standing, and that the finds belong to the Noble Energy company. The authority, incidentally, was asked by the company to sign a secrecy agreement before seeing the report.

Prior to receiving the drilling permit in the Leviathan field off the coast of Rosh Hanikra in northern Israel, the state asked Noble Energy to carry out a series of environmental surveys in the area, which is about the size of the Gush Dan conurbation along the Mediterranean coast, from Herzliya and the towns immediately north and east of Tel Aviv to Rehovot in the south.

The company was asked to perform an archaeological survey and did so by use of a sonar scan, as the seabed in this area is quite deep, about 2,000 meters (more than 6,500 feet) below sea level. The survey found nine archaeological sites in the area above where the drilling platform was built. At some sites there is more than one shipwreck.

Recently Prof. Aren Maeir, a senior archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University, applied to the Antiquities Authority to receive the scientific information gathered in the survey. Maeir was refused. The senior curator at the authority in charge of freedom of information, Yoav Zionit, wrote in response that the area of the survey is within Israel’s exclusive economic zone waters but outside its territorial waters and therefore the Antiquities Authority has no legal status there.

“The significance is that prima facie the Antiquities Authority has no standing under the Antiquities Law or the Antiquities Authority Law to place demands on companies that carry out oil/gas explorations in the economic zone, like ,” Zionit wrote.

“The archaeological chapter of the survey was given to the Antiquities Authority through the marine unit of the Antiquities Authority, with our agreement to the Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water. The material and information given to us will remain confidential until the completion of procedures. The Antiquities Authority must carry out in cooperation with the government ministries. The intent of these arrangements is an attempt by the Antiquity Authorities to expand the area of its authority even beyond the boundary of the territorial waters, an expansion that must be accomplished initially by legislation, with all that entails.”

Zionit noted that there is a “finders keepers” principle in effect in international maritime law. Any findings recovered in the open sea belong to whoever found them. Therefore, Noble Energy is not only the owner of the survey’s findings but owns these shipwreck remains as well.

“As long as Noble Energy claims ownership of the items and seeks to excavate them, it is entitled to do so at this time, and thereby the findings and the undersea cultural heritage will be damaged,” wrote Zionit. He warned of the danger to which the finds might be exposed if the public were to learn of their existence.

“To the extent to which the survey is published, any individual from anywhere in the world will be able to come and damage the antiquities, without the Antiquities Authority or any other authorized body being legally able to prevent him from doing so,” he wrote.

“Under the existing legal circumstances, we have no possibility of regulating or protecting the antiquities in the Leviathan area and, as noted, they are not under our ownership. Moreover, from the professional perspective we are not able to remove the antiquities from their location in an appropriate way and thus preserve them from looting. The information that has accumulated was produced by means of funding from a private organization, which prima facie also has the right to collect the items and claim ownership of them, and also to carry out publication of its research.”

In 2014 legislation was proposed to expand the authority’s jurisdiction to cover part of Israel’s exclusive economic zone, called an “adjacent area” – up to distance of 24 nautical miles from the shore. However, the legislation has been dropped because of the elections that have been recurring since it was introduced.

“Currently in the exclusive economic zone there is no law and everything is given to interpretation,” says attorney Noa Yayon of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. “This is truly an illogical situation but apparently it is convenient for the companies that are operating there.”

However, the findings in the Leviathan field were also discovered beyond the adjacent area, so that even if the law is passed, the authority would be powerless to do anything about it.

Israeli archaeologists have learned that the oldest remains of a ship discovered appear to date back 3,300 years to the Bronze Age. The ship was apparently carrying copper ingots, which in that period was the most costly and important raw material for the production of weapons and other tools. In 1982, Turkish divers discovered a Bronze Age shipwreck of their country’s shores. Known as the Uluburun shipwreck, the find included 10 tons of bronze ingots.

Archaeologists say that researching the area could produce a great deal of knowledge about early shipping routes, trade and cultural relations between the Israel and Lebanon to the east and Greece and Europe to the north. The two main sources of copper in the Bronze Age were Cyprus and Sardinia, and probably one of the two islands had been a port on the ship’s voyage.

“Very often we think about the ancients as a bunch of primitives who in the best case were acquainted with the lands of the neighboring village,” says Prof. Maeir, “but it seems they had a wide network of connections. Today we know about amber that came to Israel from the Baltic Sea and cinnamon that arrived from Sri Lanka during the Bronze and Iron Ages.”

Archaeologists believe the rest of the remains of wrecked ships in the Leviathan field may reveal an entire nautical history of the human race in the Mediterranean Sea, right up until the period of World War II.

Maeir requested the information so as to examine the possibility of heading a research expedition to the area, to learn more about these shipwrecks. “This is a world cultural heritage and also Israeli heritage. This archaeological information could cast light on broad subjects like trade routes, who was connected to where. With time, if archaeologists don’t do this work, then looters will do it,” says Maeir, citing a report of how an expedition was kicked out of a shipwreck site in Greece because of corruption and afterwards the site was looted by antiquities thieves.

“There is no justification for Noble Energy, which received rights to explore for oil and produce it, being also able to control access to cultural treasures in the area,” adds Maeir, “especially if this will not interfere with the gas production.”

The discovery of the ancient ships in the Leviathan area reinforces a recent change in the trend of archaeological research of the Mediterranean Sea. Until recently, archaeologists thought that most sea transportation in early periods was conducted along the shoreline and those who went to sea took care to maintain eye contact with the shore throughout the voyage for fear of going out to the open sea. However, studies published in recent years indicate that even in early times ships went out into the open sea and crossed it in straight lines.

For thousands of years the Mediterranean was used for maritime voyages and it is estimated that one out of every five such ships sank during the voyage. Therefore, there are presumably thousands of remnants of shipwrecks along the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. In 1997, during searches for the lost Israeli submarine Dakar, an American submarine found remains of two Phoenician shipwrecks from the Iron Age. These ships had large cargoes of pottery wine vessels. A robot that investigated the sites brought up some findings from these ships.

Noble Energy comments in response: “All information concerning findings discovered in the sea was sent in full to the Antiquities Authority. Just as we have done until now, we will continue to be at the disposal of the Antiquities Authority for the purpose of regularization of the issue by the state.”

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