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A Re-Berth Experience

Courtesy of The Original Jesus Boat Store of the Jesus Boat Museum, Nof Ginosar

A Re-Berth Experience

By Abraham Rabinovich

After two millennia and a tense rescue operation, the so-called ‘Jesus Boat’ has reached a safe harbor at the Allon Museum at Kibbutz Ginossar.

Two thousand years after being launched on its journey with a gentle shove, The Boat berthed in its final harbor last month with tales to tell.

Its odyssey covered just 300 meters – from the bottom of the Lake Kinneret, where it was discovered 16 years ago, to its permanent resting place in the Allon Museum at the Kibbutz Ginossar, where it was unveiled in a specialty-built wing.
The tales it bears are partly fables but the most fetching is the true story of its rescue from oblivion by a small band of enthusiasts and its restoration as one of the most vivid links we have to the Second Temple period. This was a time when events in the sliver of land between the Mediterranean and Jordan would affect the way half the world would subsequently think – about themselves, about the here and the hereafter.

The Jesus Boat was the name informally bestowed upon the craft when it was found to date from the first century CE. Given the New Testament’s account of Jesus’ ministry on the shores and the waters of the lake, it was an evocative name that tour organizers eagerly seized upon. The Kinneret already has a fleet of pseudo “Jesus Boat” clones for the pilgrim trade. However, the name was too specific and presumptuous for officials at the Allon Museum who opted instead for The Galilee Boat.

It was nothing more than a soggy plank peeping out of a mudflat when Moshe and Yuval Lufan first saw it on a winter’s day early in 1986. The brothers, archaeology buffs from Kibbutz Ginossar on the shores of the lake, were taking advantage of the Kinneret’s lowered surface after a severe drought to explore the newly exposed mudflats for antiquities. They found coins but what they were looking for was an ancient boat. Sons of a Kibbutz fishermen, it was a dream they had entertained since their youth, although professional archaeologists would have told them there was virtually no chance of ever finding one in the Kinneret because wood deteriorates rapidly in warm, freshwater lakes. In this state of blissful unawareness, the brothers saw the curving plank flush with the surface. It looked, hard to believe, like a dream come true.

They informed fellow kibbutz member Nitza Kaplan, head of the Allon Museum, then being built on kibbutz land near the lake’s edge. The museum was dedicated to the history of Galilee and the coexistence between Jews and Arabs in the region. The government’s Antiquities Department was duly notified and a nautical archaeologist, Shelley Wachsmann, was dispatched to the scene. The Archaeologist assumed that the boat had been found underwater and arrived in a jeep with diving equipment. Led out to the middle of the mudflat, he looked around and asked: “Where’s the boat?”

“You’re standing on it,” one of the brothers said.

Wachsmann saw the curved plank at his feet. Brushing off the mud, he washed a stretch of the wood with water. He could clearly make out the scars of pegged mortise-and-tenon construction in which planks are joined not by nails but by being fitted together like the leaves of a pull-out table. Any skepticism about whether an ancient boat could be found in the Kinneret was dispelled. Boats had not been built like this, Wachsmann knew, for at least 1,400 years.

Fears that the easily accessible site would be overrun by visitors, including scavengers looking for “souvenirs,” prompted the Antiquities Department to forgo the normal, months-long preparations required for an archaeological dig. Wachsmann had hoped to wait for the lake’s level to rise with the winter’s rains and then carry out the dig an an underwater excavation in order to avoid the danger from visitors. However, the sight of people wandering the mud flats in the wake of a press report about the find was enough to convince everyone involved that an emergency dig was called for.

Wachsmann invited Orna Cohen, an archaeological conservator from the Hebrew University, to join the growing team, which included his assistant, Kurt Raveh, volunteers from Ginossar, Migdal, and elsewhere. Cohen had recently returned from an intensive course in archaeological conservation at the University of London. She would soon be employing techniques not taught in any textbook.

Excavations began on February 11; just six days after Wachsmann first visited the site. The work continued through the night by the light of fishermen’s lanterns. As the mud was cleared by hand, the shape of the virtually intact hull began to emerge, the graining of wood still visible.

The water level had begun to rise in wake of recent rains, threatening to inundate the excavation site. The Kinneret Authority hastily improvised a dam out of sand-bags and earthworks around the excavation site to keep the waters at bay. It also provided pumps to remove the groundwater that kept welling up from the deepening pit.

A platform was rigged over the boat so that the archaeologists and volunteers, lying flat on their stomachs, could scoop out the mud from the boat’s interior without putting their weight on the fragile boat itself. As more and more of the timbers were exposed, they were kept wet round the clock at Cohen’s orders. If the wattelogged wood dried, she warned, it would crumble.

One of the world’s foremost experts on ancient shipbuilding, Prof. J. Richard Steffy of Texas A & M University, flew on short notice to Israel to visit the excavation site at Wachsmann’s invitation, with the US Embassy footing the bill. Steffy confirmed the antiquity of the craft at a glance, seeing it as probably from the Roman period. He was taken aback by the apparently slipshod construction. In a book Wachsmann subsequently wrote about the excavation, The Sea of Galilee Boat, he describes watching Steffy shake his head as he examined the craft. “The person who built this boat had no idea of what he was doing,” Steffy told him. Before long, however, Steffy reversed his opinion. “The boatwright knew exactly what he was doing.”
The boat builder had cobbled together the craft from recycled timber – in fact, from many different kinds of wood – using a veteran craftsman’s art to make the boat serviceable.

The vessel was built on the cheap from timbers salvaged from older boats and other wood that would have been unusable for the stouter vessels that plied the Mediterranean. He could get away with it because the requirements of boat construction were less demanding on a relatively calm lake. Steffy noticed that many of the most important parts of the boat had been deliberately removed in antiquity after the boat was taken out of service.

As Wachsmann would later reconstruct the boat’s history, it had served primarily as a fishing boat. Its virtually flat bottom permitted its nets to be cast close inshore, then pulled ashore with their catch by ropes attached to them, as is still done today. Although now deckless, the boat had had a large stern deck in antiquity and a smaller fore deck as well as a mast carrying a square sail. In the absence of wind, the boat would be rowed by four oarsmen.

The technology employed in the boat’s construction dates it to the first century CE as do the oil lamp and cooking pot found in the craft. Carbon-14 tests offer a time range between 100 BCE and 80 CE. Cohen says the evidence indicates that the boat sailed the lake at the beginning of the first century CE and, from the amount of repairs made to it, probably was in service for about 20 years. When repairs were no longer feasible, it was hauled ashore and stripped off its mast, decks, and other usable parts. It was then pushed out into the lake to sink, but came to rest on a loose tree trunk close to the shore. It was soon encased by mud which protected it from bacteria in an oxygen-free environment. Once the boat had been freed from the mud by Wachsmann’s team, he was confronted with the problem of how to move the fragile vessel without it falling apart. The air force offered a helicopter lift but that was rejected because of the vibrations. Cohen provided the answer. She sprayed the entire boat with polyurethane foam, which solidified into a Styrofoam-like material, ensuring that the timbers would remain immobilized. Fiberglass supports were added and in a complex, all-night operation that involved tunneling under the boat, the entire vessel was “packaged” for movement.

Meanwhile, a conservation pool was constructed adjacent to the Allon Museum, an enormous “bathtub” with heating pipes and other equipment into which the boat would be lowered for an extended period of treatment.
Eleven days after the excavation began, the boat was ready to sail. The artificial dam protecting it was opened by a dredge and, guided by the eager hands, the vessel, wrapped in its white cocoon, floated out into the lake for the first time, as the locals saying goes, in 2,000 years. It was pushed through shallow waters to the edge of the Kibbutz. Positioned over a wooden platform lowered by a crane into the water, it was then lifted and deposited gently in the conservation pool filled with water. A metal shed was then built around the pool.

The fate of the boat now rested in Cohen’s hands. She first took wood samples. To her astonishment, she discovered seven different types of wood with different levels of deterioration. (In time, there would prove to be 11 types of wood.) The cellulose that normally fills wood cells had been replaced by water, which was why the waterlogged wood would fall apart if it were dried; the water had to be replaced by some other material. Cohen chose polyethylene glycol, or PEG, a soluble synthetic wax that would replace the water through a years-long process of osmosis. Each type of wood required different type of treatment but, under the circumstances, she would have to devise a method that would be good for all the boat’s wood types. The chemical comes in a wide variety of formats, each with a different molecule size. Cohen first chose a tiny molecule version that would bond with the walls of the cells, then much larger versions that would displace the water actually filling the cells with the wax-like material. To adjust the properties of the PEG to the variety of woods, the chemical concentration and the temperature of the liquid would have to be increased at a carefully measured pace over time.

The then-US ambassador to Israel, Thomas Pickering, was an archaeology buff who gave his support to the project from the start. At his initiative, the Dow Chemical Company donated 60 tons of PEG valued at $100,000.

The 14 years of study and treatment since the boat’s extraction from the lake included seven years of immersion in the chemical bath. During this period, the fluid grew steadily more opaque as the chemical concentration was thickened. For much of this period, the boat could not be seen at all. “When we finally drained the pool three years ago,” says Cohen, “I was very nervous. I didn’t know if the boat would still be there.” The boat was still there, intact and preserved now by its wax-like fill.
There ensued a year’s period of careful drying to prepare it for the outside world. The relative humidity inside the conservation shed was reduced gradually from 90 percent to 60% to avoid warping. When it was done, Cohen found that the complex process had succeeded brilliantly. The various types of wood remained intact and the details of the wood were preserved. The only change was the darkening of the wood’s color.

Although the boat’s timbers had been fitted together by mortise and tenon; nails had been used at certain points as well. An anti-corrosion fluid added to the chemical solution permitted the nails to likewise survive the chemical immersion intact.
Meanwhile, plans were made to transfer the boat to a permanent home in the Allon Museum (named after the late Yigal Allon of Ginossar, who was commander of the Palmah and a senior cabinet member). With funds provided mainly by the Tourism Ministry and the Bracha Foundation, a new wing was added on to the museum for this purpose. The original thought had been to enclose the boat in a glass case with climate control. However, curator Renee Sivan insisted that there be no physical barrier between the boat and viewers which meant that the entire wing had to eb maintained under climate control, with 60% relative humidity and 20° temperature.

An elaborate cradle was built for the boat in the conservation shed. Designed by Dorit Harel, it consists of 18 stainless-steel pipes from which extend 400 small fingers, each of different size and different angle, to provide maximum support to the still-fragile vessel without being overly intrusive to the eye.

On February 15 this year, a special crane lifted the cradled boat out of the shed, whose roof had been removed. The wall of the new museum wing had also been removed. The crane remained in place, for fear that vibrations from movement on its tracks would damage the boat. After raising the boat, the operator extended the crane’s arm 24 meters, lowered it close to the ground, inserted it through the opening in the museum wall, and gently deposited the boat in its new berth.

The official opening of the exhibition took place last month in the presence of Tourism Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who said the boat would become one of the country’s major tourist sites when calm returns to the land. Also on hand was the archaeologist Wachsmann, who is now a professor of marine archaeology at Texas A & M.

The walls of the exhibition surrounding the boat are covered with photographs and with texts describing the boat’s historical context and its retrieval. On one wall, visitors see an image of a mosaic found in the 1980s by Franciscan excavators on the shores of the lake depicting an identical type of boat with a mast and two oars on one side as well as a rudder. The best part of the exhibition, maybe, is what is left to the imagination.

The boat itself is a tribute to neither aesthetics nor ancient technology. With the decks and mast missing, we look straight into the roughly hewn innards of an ancient maritime jalopy knocked together from the cheapest woods available by an experienced boatwright – we can imagine him grizzled and no-nonsense, an ancient maritime “garagenik.”

Of its original 10-meter length, 8.2 meters remain. The sides of the boat today stand 1.3 meters high, about two-thirds its original height (without the mast). Wachsmann believes it belonged to the largest model of vessel plying the waters of the Sea of Galilee, boats that served for fishing and transportation.

The exhibition text suggests the possibility that the boat participated in the battle off Migdal, described by Josephus, in which the Romans, on their way to Jerusalem, built rafts and destroyed the Jews of the area who had taken to their boats. Also suggested is that the boat was witness to the ministry of Jesus and his offer to Simon and Andrew to make them “fishers of men.”

For a visitor, however, it is enough to glimpse the no-frills, workaday side of life in that larger-than-life period. Even as grand theologies were being shaped about them, artisans then were cutting corners by using retreaded material and fishermen were rising early in the morning and squinting at the sky. The distance between divine and human then, one surmises, was no greater then, than it is today.

Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem Post Magazine, Novermber 10, 2000

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