Geo-archaeological markers reveal magnitude and rates of Israeli coastal cliff erosion and retreat
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Geo-archaeological studies along the Mediterranean coast of Israel and its seabed have revealed shipwrecks, anchorages, coastal installations and natural features that can act as markers to estimate the formation date and retreat rates of the coastal cliff of central Israel. The Sharon coastal ridge consists of alternating layers of kurkar (local term for aeolian carbonate-cemented, quartz sandstone) and poorly consolidated palaeosol deposits. The ridge was formed during the Late Pleistocene (about 70,000 to 10,000 yr. BP). At about 7,500 yr. BP, sea level reached the western edge of the present coastal ridge, currently located about 8 m below the present sea level, and a coastal cliff developed. Since then the cliff has continuously been eroded and retreated eastward by natural processes, as well as by anthropogenic impact. This article is an interdisciplinary geo-archaeological study of the extent and rates of retreat of the coastal cliff over the last 7,500 years. The findings suggest that overall the cliff has retreated about 730 m in this period, at an average rate of 9.7 cm/yr. However, the study shows that a considerably higher rate of cliff retreat occurred between about 7,500 and 3,900 yr. BP (about 650 m in about 3,600 years, at about 18 cm/yr). Sea level reached its present level at about 4,000 yr. BP (Middle Bronze Age) and has not changed significantly since. Since the Middle Bronze Age, the cliff has retreated about 80 m in 3,900 years (at about 2 cm/yr). Human activity and sea level rise during the last 100 years have significantly accelerated coastal erosion and cliff retreat.
KeywordsMarine archaeology Stone anchors Coastal change Coastal erosion Sea level change
The unique cultural heritage of Israel reflects important chapters and events in the history of humanity, starting with the Neolithic revolution, the first Near Eastern Empires, the foundation stones of the major monotheistic religions, and other major historical events (Galili et al. 2002; Galili and Rosen 2010).
Previous studies used aerial photographs and geodetic measurement to measure the Sharon coastal cliff erosion during the last century, and estimated retreat rates of 20 to 30 cm/yr. on average (Perath 1982; Perath and Almagor 2000; Gill and Almagor 2002; Zviely and Klein 2004 and references therein). A recent study measured the cliff erosion characteristics associated with high-energy winter storms (10 to 20-year return period) at five locations along the Sharon coastal cliff. The study used LIDAR measurements of storm-induced landslide scars and remains of previous landslides seen in aerial photographs (Katz et al. 2007). Based on archaeological features studied by Z. Herzog in Tell Michal, Neev et al. (1987: 57, Fig. 17) suggested a rate of 20 cm/yr. for the Middle/Late Bronze Age (3,600 to 3,300 yr. BP). A more recent research project studied the destruction of archaeological features and estimated coastal cliff retreat over the last 3,650 years using archaeological structures (Barkai et al. 2017). The 2007 and 2017 studies proposed considerably lower retreat rates - about 10 cm/yr. and 2 to 3 cm/yr. respectively - than those proposed previously. These significant differences in retreat rates demand discussion. By applying interdisciplinary archaeological, geological and geomorphological studies the present article evaluates the magnitude and rates of post-glacial, Holocene, sea-level rise and the resulting coastal cliff retreat in Apollonia, some 10 km north of Tel Aviv.
Global sea-level changes from LGM to the beginning of the Holocene
Local sea-level changes during the first half of the Holocene
Local sea-level changes during the second half of the Holocene
Rates of Holocene sea-level rise
The local Holocene sea-level curve (Fig. 2) shows two dominant rates of rise: from the beginning of the Holocene about 10,000 yr. BP to about 7,600 yr. BP, sea level rose from 37 m to 8 m bsl at an average rate of 12.1 mm/yr. (slightly higher than that observed for 20,000 to 10,000 yr. BP); and from about 7,500 to about 4,000 yr. BP, the sea level continued to rise up to the present sea level at an average rate of 2.3 mm/yr. In the last 4,000 years, no major changes (exceeding 1 m) is observed, and the rate of sea-level change has been less than 0.25 mm/yr. The curve, however, is an estimate, there are considerable gaps in the data, and small fluctuations in sea level may not be represented in the curve.
The continental shelf of Israel
The Sharon coastal cliff
The Sharon cliff is part of a wide coastal kurkar ridge that stretches from Tel Aviv in the south to Hadera in the north (Fig. 1a).
The Apollonia (Arsuf) site and its anchorage
The Byblos-type stone anchor as cultural marker of the early middle bronze age
It was stated that stone anchors are the potsherds of marine archaeology (Frost 1973). Some of them can be used as reliable cultural markers and help dating. The Byblos-type stone anchor is a specific type of anchor that was used in the eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea during the Middle Bronze Age. It is an isosceles triangle-shaped limestone slab of identical thickness, often with oval top, having a perforation at its apex. Sometimes there is a shallow rope groove above the perforation. This type of stone anchors was recovered in sacred sites in Syria, Lebanon and on the Red Sea coast (Frost 1970).
Six clusters of Byblos-type stone anchors and several isolated ones were found off the Israeli coast between Haifa and Herzliya, most of them along the Carmel coast (Figs. 1a and 11) (Galili 1985a, b; Galili et al. 1994: 94–97, Fig. 1 Table 1). The distribution patterns of the Middle Bronze Age assemblages on the sea bottom, at water depths of 3 to 4 m bsl, indicate that they originated from ships that were driven ashore during storms and grounded (see paragraph 5.1 below). The Byblos-type anchors may thus provide an upper and lower possible sea-level marker at that period with accuracy range of ±0.5 m, suggesting that sea level reached the present level, or close to it (± 0.5 m) during the Middle Bronze Age (see above).
Dating the Byblos type stone anchors relies mainly on the finds from sacred sites on land, where anchors were votive offerings. An early example of a Byblos type anchor was recovered in Byblos, Lebanon, at the entrance to the sacred enclosure dated to 4,300 yr. BP (Frost 1970: 383, pl 1A, Fig. 1a). Another broken example was found within the sacred enclosure (Frost 1970, Fig. 1b). Two such anchors were found in a chapel attached to the obelisk temple in Byblos (Frost 1970, Fig. 3: b, c) dated to 3,900 yr. BP, and another was found in the temple of obelisks, but not in situ (Frost 1970, Fig. 2d). An almost identical anchor to the one found in the sacred enclosure in Byblos was recovered in the temple of Baal at Ugarit (Ras Shamra, Syria), and was dated to 3,900 yr. BP by the excavator (Frost 1970: 383, Fig. 1b). In Marsa Gawasis on the Red Sea coast, a complex of marine associated finds, including wooden parts of ships, ropes, pottery and stone anchors, was recovered. According to the excavators, the site served as an anchorage and a maritime base for Egyptian expeditions to the Land of Punt. The anchorage of Marsa Gawasis was dated to the 12th Dynasty (1991 to 1802 BCE, about 4,000 yr. to 3,800 yr. BP) (Bard and Fattovich 2007: 239–253). Twenty-six whole and broken stone anchors were recovered, many of them of the Byblos-type, and were dated to the Middle Kingdom (Zazzaro 2007: 153–163, Figs. 66, 67, 68). Judging by the anchors found in datable shrines in Ugarit, Byblos and Marsa Gawasis on the Red Sea coast, and the finds off the Israeli coast, these anchors may be dated to the early stage of the Middle Bronze Age, about 3,900 yr. BP.
The coastal cliff erosion along the Sharon coast and its retreat rates are mainly dependent on sea level, wave regime, local rock consolidation, surface runoff and anthropogenic activities (sand quarrying, marine construction etc.). To reconstruct the destruction of Apollonia coastal cliff and assess its retreat rates during the Holocene, a curve of sea-level changes along the Israeli coast during the Holocene was used (Galili et al. 1988, 2005). This curve is based on archaeological (wells, submerged settlements, shipwrecks, anchorages, coastal installations) and geomorphological (wave notches, abrasion platforms) features.
Grounded shipwrecks as indicator for sea level and coastline location
Previous studies of site formation and post deposition processes associated with shipwrecks suggest that they can be used as approximate markers of sea level. Usually a shipwreck or an isolated anchor on shallow sea-bottom is evidence of a grounded ship and can provide the lowermost possible sea level at the time of grounding. However, shipwrecks may provide the lowermost and uppermost sea level at time of their grounding, with an estimated accuracy of 1 m (Galili 1985a: 144; Galili 1985b: Fig. 125; Galili et al. 1988, 2005). Observation on recent shipwrecks along the Israeli coast show that most wreckage events of small and medium sized vessels occurred close to the coastline, when the vessels lost propulsion and control during winter storms, drifted ashore and were grounded in shallow water (about 20 to 40 m offshore at a water depth of about 1 m). Clusters of anchors and heavy objects originating from shipwrecks dated to 3,900 to 1,500 yr. BP along the Israeli coast were found about 100 to 120 m offshore in 3 to 4 m water depth. Previous studies of dozens of grounded shipwrecks along the Israeli coast (reference see above) suggest that heavy stone anchors remained in situ after grounding, thus their location designate the final deposition of the ship’s hull in shallow water close to the coast. After grounding on sandy beaches, post-deposition processes cause vertical subsidence of heavy artefacts (e.g. metals, anchors), while the light ones (wooden parts) drift away from the wreckage site. During and soon after grounding, the powerful waves and currents in the breaker zone start to erode the sandy seabed around heavy objects and they sink into the sand until they are buried. During the ages, extreme waves expose the objects again and again, and the settling in the sandy bottom continues until they finally reach bedrock or hard palaeosol. It should be noted that many archaeological objects found along the Israeli coast were originally overlain by a 1 to 2 m layer of sand before exposure (Galili et al. 1988, 2005).
Recent formation of the Apollonia coastal cliff
Studies relying on archaeological and geomorphological markers suggest that the coastal zone of Israel has been relatively tectonically stable during the last 3,000 years (Galili and Sharvit 1989; Sivan et al. 2001, 2004). Thus, the coastal cliff in the study area is a product of erosion, rather than vertical earth crust movements. During the twentieth century, natural coastal processes, global sea-level rise of about 15 cm (Church and White 2011) and anthropogenic impact, mainly the construction of the Marina Herzliya (built between 1990 and 1992) located about 2.8 to 3.5 km south of the Apollonia site (Klein and Zviely 2001), caused severe erosion of the Apollonia coastal cliff and its sandy seashore. This, in turn, has accelerated the retreat of the cliff and the destruction of ancient and modern structures on it. During winter storms wave runup reaches the foot of the cliffs, creating notches and occasional landslides (Figs. 4 and 5). These rock-slides (slumps) and surface runoff are the main erosional agents responsible for the cliff’s collapse and its retreat eastward. The coastal cliff and the remains of structures of the ancient site of Apollonia on it fall onto the beach (Fig. 6). The unconsolidated sediments (fines and sand) of these slumps are washed away by waves and coastal currents, leaving behind solid kurkar plates and pebbles (1–3 cm thick and up to 20 cm long), as well as ancient building blocks originating from the Apollonia site.
Assumptions used for calculating the retreat values and rates of the coastal cliff of Apollonia
The general sea conditions (i.e. wave and tide regime) along the Israeli coast during the Holocene, were similar to those presently active (Zviely et al. 2006, 2007). This may indicate that the sea bottom profiles and the cliff erosion mechanisms were similar to those of today.
A sandy coast naturally tends to be in an equilibrium profile. According to the Bruun Rule (Bruun 1962), when sea-level rises, the shoreface will adjust itself to re-establish an equilibrium thus maintaining its profile. This means that the entire profile of the shoreface will shift landward by an amount dependent on the rise in sea level, resulting in erosion of the upper shoreface.
Based on aerial photographs, Zviely et al. (2000) and Klein and Zviely (2001) show that before the construction of the Herzliya Marina (1990–1992), the northern coast of Herzliya (i.e. the study area) was about 30 to 40 m wide.
Studies of Holocene sea-level changes along the Israeli coast (Galili et al. 1988, 2005; Sivan et al. 2001) suggested that at about 7,500 yr. BP the sea level reached the elevation of about 8 m bsl (Fig. 2). At that time the rising sea reached the western edge (now submerged) of the current coastal kurkar ridge and its erosion began, resulting in the formation of a retreating coastal escarpment.
Location of the western edge of the coastal ridge about 8,000 BP
The coastline location during the Holocene can be roughly assessed from the local sea-level curve and the current bathymetry of the rocky seabed. Therefore, the key issue for assessing the rate and time of the coastal cliff retreat in the study area is the location and water depth of the submerged western edge of the coastal kurkar ridge.
The location of the coastline and its cliff in the study area at about 3,900 yr. BP
The coastal cliff retreat rates in the study area
The average rate of cliff retreat in the last 7,500 years can be calculated by dividing the length of the eroded portion of the ridge by the time that passed since the rising sea started to erode the ridge. The current study observations indicate that the submerged western edges of the ridge are situated about 690 m offshore the present coastline, some 730 m west of the current coastal cliff (Fig. 13). These distances indicate that the average retreat rate of the cliff during the last 7,500 years was about 9.7 cm/yr. This rate is similar to the present coastal cliff retreat rate (of maximum 10 cm/year) evaluated by Katz et al. (2016). The considerations associated with the find of the Byblos-type anchor offshore Apollonia, may, however, help to assess the average retreat rate values between 7,500 and 3,900 yr. BP, and in the last 3,900 years. The Byblos-type anchor was found in the anchorage site located about 120 m offshore the present coastline, some 570 m east of the submerged western edge of the kurkar ridge. The anchor find suggests that around 3,900 yr. BP a ship was wrecked or lost an anchor at the location where the anchor was found. The depth at this location during the Middle Bronze Age must have been shallower (1.5 to 2 m), as more sand was available at the site at that time. It is unlikely that a ship lost an anchor while anchoring at such a shallow depth, so close to the coast. Thus, the anchor most probably originated from a ship that was grounded and wrecked at that site. The coastline and cliff locations during the Middle Bronze Age can thus be estimated by the location of this anchor. The anchor was found some 570 m east of the submerged edge of the kurkar ridge. Thus, the coastline at the time of the wrecking was some 30 m east of the anchor (about 560 m east of the western edge of the ridge), and the cliff top was some 55 m east of the Middle Bronze Age coastline (about 650 m east of the submerged western edge of the ridge). The cliff top at that time must have been about 80 m west of the present cliff top (Fig. 13). The estimated location of the coastline and the associated cliff during the Middle Bronze Age enables to calculate the cliff retreat rates in two time-spans: from 7,500 to 3,900 yr. BP, before the wrecking of the Middle Bronze Age ship, the cliff retreated some 650 m westward at an average rate of about 18 cm/yr., while in the last 3,900 years the cliff retreated 80 m at a considerably lower rate of about 2 cm/yr.
Relation to other recent studies determining the Sharon coastal cliff retreat rate
Recent studies on the coastal cliff in central Israel, evaluated its retreat rate based on landslide measurements (Katz et al. 2016) and the destruction of archaeological features (Barkai et al. 2017). They suggested an average rate of 10 cm/yr. and 2 to 3 cm/yr. respectively in the last 2,500 years. These rates are slower than the current study evaluated rates for the time span from 7,500 to 3,900 yr. BP. It seems reasonable to assume that when sea level reached the coastal ridge, rapid erosion occurred, as attested by our study. Later, after sea level stabilized at 4,000 yr. BP, the retreat rates were considerably reduced.
Given that the sea reached its present elevation at about 4,000 yr. BP and the tectonic stability of the Israeli coast (Galili and Sharvit 1998), the current findings suggest that the coastal cliff in Apollonia retreated some 730 m during the last 7,500 years, at an average rate of about 9.7 cm/yr. The most significant initial and main phase of the coastal cliff retreat took place between 7,500 and 3,900 yr. BP (about 650 m in 3,600 years at a rate of about 18 cm/yr). Since the Middle Bronze Age (about the last 3,900 years) the cliff retreated only 80 m at a rate of about 2 cm/yr. Human activity and sea-level rise in the last 100 years have significantly accelerated coastal erosion, cliff retreat and the formation of new cliffs. The differences between the rates of coastal cliff retreat proposed by Zviely and Klein (2004) and those of Katz and Mushkin (2013) and Barkai et al. (2017) may stem from the fact that these studies covered only the last 3,650 years and are associated with relatively stable sea level conditions. The high values of cliff retreat observed by Zviely and Klein (20 to 30 mm/yr) are probably associated with the observed sea-level rise of about 17 cm during the last 100 years (1.7 mm/yr) (Church and White 2011) an, in places, the influence of marine installations built during recent decades.
The current study uses archaeological and geological features to identify long duration processes, during sea level-rise, before the sea reached its present level. It evaluates the patterns, time scale and erosion rates of the Apollonia coastal cliffs and retreat in the last 7,500 years. Future sea-level rise of 1 m during the twenty-first century, as predicted by scholars (De Conto and Pollard 2016), (at a rate of 10 mm/yr) is slightly lower than that observed for the beginning of the Holocene (12.1 mm/yr., see above) and considerably higher than that which occurred at the end of the Neolithic Period (2.3 mm/yr., see above). Such a sea-level rise, if it occurs, will probably cause cliff retreat of about 15 cm/yr. or more (similar to that observed between 7,500 and 3,900 yr. BP).
The authors wish to thank the Israel Antiquities Authority and the University of Haifa for the institutional support, and to Dr. Burch Rosen, Dr. Gideon Almagor and the anonymous reviewer, for their useful comments, that helped us improving the manuscript.
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