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2,000 Years Under the Sea
By John D. Pierce
The Dramatic Discovery and Recovery of an Ancient Boat in Galilee. An extensive article about the discover, recovery, restoration and exhibtion of the Jesus Boat.
Even the most optimistic person would find it hard to say something good about a drought. That certainly was the case in January 1986 after more than a year of insufficient rainfall caused the Sea of Galilee to reach a record low. A crisis was looming as the receding waters of Galilee – known to locals as Lake Kinneret – provided the essential source of fresh water for Israel.
What good could possibly come from such a crisis?
The newly revealed lake bed, drying by exposure to the sun and wind, was certainly less attractive than the usual scenic seashore which is best known from biblical history as a familiar setting for the ministry of Jesus some 2,000 years ago.
Two brothers, Yuval and Moshe Lufan, from the nearby Kibbutz Ginosar, were exploring the mud flats when they discovered some ancient coins brought to the mud’s surface by the spinning tires of a military vehicle traveling the newly created shoreline. They also found a few ancient nails and after further examination, what appeared to be the outline of a small boat.
Returning to the Kibbutz, a Jewish cooperative community, the brothers asked various sources about any awareness of a sunken boat in the lake over recent years. No one could recall such an event, so the amateur archaeologists decided to contact local authorities about their finding.
A few days later, on February 4, 1986, the news reached the desk of Shelley Wachsmann, a highly regarded nautical archaeologist who at the time was serving as the Inspector of Underwater Antiquities for the Israeli government. He and colleague, Kurt Raveh, decided to travel to Ginosar to talk with the Lufan brothers.
The question posed to them was simple: “Could the oval outline in the lake bed mud of the Sea of Galilee be that of an ancient boat?”
Familiar with early water craft discovered in the Mediterranean Sea, Wachsmann explained that the riddle of the Galilee boat could be solved by looking at its method of construction. No ancient boats had ever been retrieved from the Galilee. However, the assumption was that the construction method of “mortise-and-tenon” joints held in place by wooden pegs, which dated back to the 14th and 13th centuries through the Roman period, would have been the method used for building boats for the Galilee two millennia ago. This was consistent with boats found in the Mediterranean and other settings.
It was time to find out the answer. After driving his Jeep to the Kinneret shoreline, Wachsmann and the others decided to excavate a small section of the boat at midship. As they carefully removed the mud from the aging wood they soon revealed the “mortise and tenon” construction they had just discussed.
Indeed, this was an ancient boat!
RAINBOWS AND RUMORS
Ironically, rain began to fall on the parched land of Galilee at the very moment. In their jubilation over the boat’s discovery, however, Wachsmann and the others hardly noticed the much needed rainfall until it became a heavy downpour. They hurried to their vehicle to wait out the brief rain shower. Returning to the site of the boat, they were mesmerized by the appearance of a brilliant double rainbow appearing across the Galilean sky.
In that Euphoric setting the group began to speculate on the possible history of the ancient boat apparently preserved through generations in the mud of the biblical sea. They recalled the famous battle of migdal (the home of Mary Magdalene), detailed by first-century Jewish historian Josephus, and wondered of the boat could have been used in that Jewish revolt against Rome beginning in A.D. 67.
A fleet of fishing boats, according to Josephus, had been prepared for battle in Migdal, just a mile south of where the boat was discovered. After daring attacks and temporary advances many Jews in Migdal were massacred by Roman forces while others escaped by boat. The Roman forces under the leadership of Vespasian took to the seas where the battle resumed until, as Josephus writes, “the dead, including those who earlier fell in the defense of the town numbered 6,700.”
What if the boat had been around a few decades earlier on the Sea of Galilee during the life and ministry of Jesus and his disciples?
There was little time for theories. News of the boat-along with an abundance of rumors-was making its way across Israel. The archaeologists knew it would soon be difficult to protect the site from looters and curious onlookers. After an initial probe excavation the site was covered with mud again and two decoy excavations were set up further down the shore to distract attention.
Indeed, many people came as the news accounts grew to exaggerated reports that “the boat of Jesus” or “a ship full of gold” had been found.
Though the crew of archaeologists preferred privacy, crowds began to converge on the site which had been secured. Wachsmann recalled that over the years many important archaeological sites have been destroyed by looters and the curious. He was determined that the Galilee boat would not be among them.
According to Wachsmann, archeologists often take months, sometimes years, to plan such a major project. But the growing public attention would require that the excavation begin in just three days. Wachmann had hoped to get additional help by bringing Dick Steffy, a professor at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University and, in Wachsmann’s opinion, the world’s leading expert on ancient ship construction.
A second challenge, in addition to the curious crowds, was pushing the crew to do this important excavation in haste. Rain was finally falling and the lake was steadily rising. Normally, this would have been great news since water from the sea is transported throughout Israel via the national water carrier.
However, the rising water was threatening the excavation site. Only two weeks had passed between the initial probe of the site and the start of the excavation. The water level had increased, however, from being 100 feet away to just 30 feet from the dig site.
The start was further delayed for a few hours by a group of armed settlers who decided to claim the boat as their own. Proper authorities made it clear that all antiquities belonged to the state. The work finally began, but it quickly became apparent that there would not be enough daylight to carry out the project in a limited time period.
Fishing lanterns were erected to give a glow over the site and allow for better use of the fading time frame before the waters consumed the area. The long and tedious hours of work in removing mud from around the site seemed to discourage many of the onlookers who were anticipating the quick emergence of a treasure. The excavation was slow as a six-inch layer of mud was left around the wooden structure for support.
Government leaders-surprised by Wachsmann’s seemingly ridiculous request to lower the lake after a record drought-agreed instead to build a massive dike to help keep the rising water from the site. But long days and nights were still needed to complete the project. At times the archaeologists would spend hours lying prone in the cold, wet mud to be certain not to miss any small, yet important artifacts.
In fact, several significant pieces of pottery including a complete cooking pot and an oil lamp were discovered alongside the ancient boat.
By the second day of excavation the skeletal-framed boat began to appear more clearly from the lake bed. The tired, but excited archeological team was well assisted by volunteers from Kibbutz Ginosar and others who would complete their own work each day and then join the efforts at the dig site.
As a careful excavation continued there was a growing fear that the fragile craft might simply fall apart when taken out of the mud. Platforms were erected over the site to avoid contact with the boat and the various parts of the emerging structure were tagged, numbered and photographed. Just what condition the boat could be retrieved in remained a mystery.
By the fifth day of excavation the hull was revealed and Dick Steffy of Texas A&M arrived to lend his expertise. His presence was reassuring, but the task of removing and preserving the boat, once it was exposed, remained a challenge to be faced.
On the eighth day all attention was turned to conservator Orna Cohen to devise a plan for safely removing the fragile, water-soaked wooden boat from its centuries-long place of rest. Her studies indicated that the structures was now about 80 percent water and was unstable as wet cardboard. Should the water be allowed to evaporate naturally, the structure would simply fall apart. As a precaution, the exposed wood was sprayed with water and covered each night of the project.
Cohen proposed completely encapsulating the boat and floating it out as a single unit. She devised a method of strengthening the boat with a frame of fiberglass and polyester. Then the entire craft was sprayed with a liquid polyurethane which solidified for protection.
After attaching the fiberglass frames to the hull and tunnel, and additional protection, the now secured boat was ready for removal. After eleven days and nights of tedious and exhausting work, the boat long hidden in the mud and waters of the Sea of Galilee was being rescued.
The crowd along the shoreline cheered as a crane lifted the boat-with conservator Cohen aboard-out of the water.
Extensive studies show that the boat is quite ancient, though it is impossible to give a precise date for its construction and use. Independent studies, however, suggest that the boat is most likely from a time between the first century BC and the late first century AD, which of course includes the time of Jesus’ ministry around and on the Sea of Galilee. The boat is 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide and 4.5 feet deep. Up to fifteen small Galilean men-weighing about 140 pounds each as an anthropologist suggests- could have traveled in the ancient craft. Professor Steffy suggests that the boat was likely built by a good craftsman using inferior, even scrap, materials. Apparently, the owner did not have the resources to build a better quality boat.
A first century mosaic from a house in the Galilean seaside town of migdal, just one mile from the discovery site, shows how the boat might have looked with its mast and sails. At first there appeared to be a difference between the recovered boat, which seemed to use two rowers on each side, and the one depicted in the mosaic which shows three. However, closer examination suggests that the person pictured in the rear of the boat in the mosaic is using a wider steer oar, or rudder. Therefore, the mosaic might well represent how the ancient boat once appeared.
The ancient boat is now in its final phase of preservation, according to Wachsmann and Cohen. The polyurethane coating was quickly removed after its rescue and the boat was secured in a specially constructed conservation pool where the wood was treated with a wax-based material for nearly a decade.
The boat is now being slowly dried and is visible through a glass enclosure in a very small structure next to the Yigal Allon Centre on the shore of the Galilee at Ginosar. However, there is a growing effort to provide a new home for the ancient craft.
A proposed new wing to the Yigal Allon Centre would provide the proper museum setting to display the preserved boat from the New Testament period and give necessary space for supporting severl state-of-the-arts presentations regarding the historical significance and dramatic recovery of the craft. The permanent display would keep the boat near its discovery point where it would be a major attraction for visitors to the Holy Land who come to the shores of the Galilee.
Funds are currently being sought for the project according to Wachsmann, now an assistant professor of biblical archeology at Texas A&M, who speaks of his relationship with the boat in parental terms. “It is like having a child and not being able to send him to college,” said Wachsmann of his interest in the ancient boat and the desire for its proper display.
FOR FURTHER READING, SEE…
Dr. Wachsmann’s article, “Boat From Jesus’ Time Recoverd From Sea of Galilee” in Biblical Archeology Review, Sept./Oct. 1988, or….
Other the bok, The Sea of Galilee Boat by Shelley Wachsmann, available from the Texas A&M Bookstore at 1-800-624-7452.
John D. Pierce. E-Street Journal, Volume 2, Number 1, Spring 1997, pages 17-25.
The E Street Journal™ is a quarterly publication of The Christian Index.