Friday, March 23, 2007 | return to: local


Israeli archaeologist explores underwater artifacts

by stacey palevsky, staff writer

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Jacob Sharvit doesn't need a wide-brimmed hat or sunscreen when he goes out on archaeological digs.

That's because he doesn't quite "go out."

He goes down instead — about 20 meters, to be exact.

Sharvit is an underwater archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority. He'll bring his 20 years of expertise and underwater exploration to San Francisco on Wednesday, March 28 to speak at the de Young Museum as part of the fifth annual lecture series "Archaeological Discoveries in Israel" sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, administered by the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

"With the abundance of material and work we do underwater, we thought that it's time we talk about it," said Jacob Fisch, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, explaining how he decided to focus this year's lecture on archaeology of the underwater variety.

Sharvit, on the front lines of Israel's under-the-sea discoveries, is excited to share the details of his work with Bay Area residents.

"The site that we've been working on in the last few years is among the most important sites along the [Mediterranean] coast," he said of a section of coastline just south of Haifa, in Atlit. "There we found one of the most ancient wells in the world, and more than 100 burials still with many skeletons."

Jerusalem is usually at the center of attention regarding Israel's archaeology. But Sharvit said there's just as much to explore under the country's watery surfaces.

Since underwater archaeology began in the early '60s, in Israel the Israeli coast has been found to be a crossroads, a busy trading route of many civilizations.

Recently, underwater rescue surveys and excavations near Akko, Dor, Caesarea, Ashkelon and Atlit have revealed shipwrecks, cargos, treasures, submergedprehistoric villages, harbors and anchorages.

Sharvit often spends six hours a day underwater with other archaeologists. The usually four-person crew goes out on a boat carrying enough extra oxygen tanks to last the day.

The archaeologists go underwater with special paper and pens, video and still cameras and a suction tool that removes sediment so the divers can get a better look at, say, a shipwreck or burial site.

The most interesting thing Sharvit has discovered?

"Oh, there are so many!" he said during a telephone interview from Israel. "But one of the most exciting were Hellenistic silver coins — their preservation was just fantastic."

Sharvit will remove antiquities from the sea floor if they're of particular interest and need further study, or if being uncovered and exposed put their preservation at risk. Many of these items end up in the Haifa Maritime Museum or the National Museum in Jerusalem. If the archaeologists determine something is better left in the water, the area is usually declared an antiquities site and nobody can fish or build near it.

"In Israel, there is enough work for more than 100 underwater archaeologists," Sharvit said. But within the Antiquities Society, he is one of only two fulltime underwater archaeologists, leaving many lifetimes of discoveries below the surface.

"This program is something that's unique," said Judy Bloom with the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the Diller Foundation lecture series. "We usually don't have the opportunity to hear about these objects, especially from someone who has been on site and discovered them."

Jacob Sharvit
will speak 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 28 at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The talk is free and open to the public.


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