'Priceless' Trove Of Ancient Gold Coins Discovered Off Coast Of Israel

02/19/2015 08:55 am ET

Divers exploring an ancient Mediterranean harbor in Israel's Caesarea National Park a few weeks ago discovered glittering treasure on the seabed -- nearly 2,000 gold coins dating back more than 1,000 years.

The sunken treasure -- which the divers handed over to the Israel Antiquities Authority -- included coins of various denominations and sizes from the period of the Fatimid Caliphate, the Muslim dynasty that ruled in much of North Africa and the Middle East from 909 to 1171, Discovery News reported.

The treasure is being called the largest hoard of gold coins ever found in Israel.

“The coins are in an excellent state of preservation, and despite the fact they were at the bottom of the sea for about a thousand years, they did not require any cleaning or conservation intervention," Robert Cole, an expert numismatist for the Authority, said in a written statement. "This is because gold is a noble metal and is not affected by air or water."

Many of the coins were bent and exhibited bite marks. That suggests they were once closely examined by their owners or by merchants, Cole said.

Kobi Sharvit, director of the Authority's marine archaeology unit, said in the statement that the treasure -- which weighs nearly 20 pounds -- was likely hidden beneath sand until winter storms shifted the seabed.

And Yoli Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Authority, told AFP that the discovery was “so valuable that it's priceless."

But where did the coins come from? That remains a mystery.

Some scientists think the coins may have come from the wreck of an official treasury boat. Others think they were used to pay military personnel stationed in Caesarea during the Fatimid period.

"Another theory is that the treasure was money belonging to a large merchant ship that traded with the coastal cities and the port on the Mediterranean Sea and sank there," Sharvit said in the statement. "With the salvage excavations that will be conducted there, it will be possible to supplement our understanding of the entire archaeological context, and thus answer the many questions that still remain unanswered about the treasure."

Scroll down to see photos of the newly discovered gold coins.

    Kobi Sharvit of the Israel Antiquities Authority holding the Fatimid-period gold coins that were found in the seabed in the Mediterranean Sea near the port of Caesarea National Park in Caesarea, Israel on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015.
    Sharvit holding the coins for others to observe.
    Dror Planer of the Israel Antiquities Authority collecting the gold coins.
  • JACK GUEZ via Getty Images
    The gold coins on sand near Israel's Mediterranean coast
  • JACK GUEZ via Getty Images
    One of the newly discovered gold coins.
  • JACK GUEZ via Getty Images
    Two of the gold coins.
  • JACK GUEZ via Getty Images
    The gold coins are now being studied by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
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