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Up from the Depths

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

Up from the Depths

By Abraham Rabinovich

After a 2,000-year voyage and a nine-and-a-half-year bath, the Kinneret boat has finally reached safe harbor.

It was an act of faith for those who came to look at the murky pool, even for the nonreligious. Thousands of visitors, most of them Christian pilgrims, have stared at the opaque liquid with reverence in recent years. Their gaze could not penetrate the surface, but they have made the trip up the shores of Lake Kinneret to the Igal Allon Museum and paid an entry fee to the hut housing the pool in the conviction that below the surface was a 2,000-year-old boat, its fragile wooden frame being pickled in a dense chemical solution.

It was a conviction not altogether shared by the woman who had actually put the boat there nine-and-a-half years ago. “I didn’t know what we’d find when we drained the pool,” says Orna Cohen, a conservationist for the Antiquities Authority. “There was a reasonably good chance that the boat had collapsed.”

Two months ago, the chemical treatment was calculated to be completed and the pool was finally drained. As the chemical solution was slowly pumped out, it became evident that the boat had survived its 2,000-year voyage in remarkable condition and would become one of Israel’s prime tourist attractions. It had been dubbed “The Jesus Boat” by journalists after archaeologists dated it to the first century CE or a bit earlier. The dating made the glib association with Jesus’ ministry not altogether outrageous. In any case, the boat constituted the most vivid remains from the period of the New Testament to be found on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

None have prayed harder for its safe passage through its chemical bath than the members f Kibbutz Ginossar and the operators of the Allon Museum on whose premises the boat is now located. “We expect 600,000 Christian visitors a year,” says Nitsa Kaplan, director of the museum. Until now the financially stressed museum had drawn about 70,000 visitors a year. The museum, whose theme is man and nature in Galilee, is located on a lakeside tract donated by Ginossar. Like the museum, the nearby kibbutz guest house and restaurant can anticipate a much needed injection of income.

The boat had already inspired a thriving new tourism branch on the Kinneret with 10 oversized “replicas” belonging to four different tourism companies plying the waters of the lake, some of them bearing the names of the apostles.

Allon Museum authorities have drawn up plans for a new wing to house the boat. Until it is completed in two years, the boat will be on view inside the emptied pool.

The survival of the boat constitutes an archaeological miracle of goodly proportions – some religious, of course, may see that as godly proportions. A severe drought 10 winters ago lowered the level of the lake and exposed large mud flats along its shores. Two brothers from Ginossar, strolling over the flats on the off chance of finding coins or other antiquities, spotted a line of wood that seemed to resemble the outline of a boat. An archaeological team headed by Shelley Wachsmann was notified that a possibly ancient boat had been found.

“Normally, organic materials, such as wooden boats, decay rapidly in warm, freshwater lakes like the Sea of Galilee,” writes Wachsmann in his newly published book “The Sea of Galilee Boat” (Plenum Press, New York). “Thus archaeologists, myself included, had never given serious thought to finding the remains of ancient vessels [there].”

Scraping away mud from the upper planks, Wachsmann and archaeologist Kurt Raveh saw to their astonishment that the sections of wood were joined not by metal fasteners but were fitted together by mortise-and-tenon joints; the way a two prong plug, say, fits into a two hole socket. This clearly marked it as an ancient vessel, the first ever found in the lake. A cooking pot and an oil lamp alongside the boat provided a tentative dating of first century BCE to first century CE.
An extraordinary emergency dig was launched in the hope of retrieving the boat before the site was inundated by the lake, which began to rise, or looted by souvenir hunters alerted by news of the find. Members of Ginossar and other volunteers worked with the archaeologists virtually around the clock under the lights of fishermen’s lanterns borrowed from the Kibbutz.

Two things about the boat became increasingly apparent as the mud was cleared away. One was that it was an archaeological treasure; the other was that it was a piece of junk.

Important parts of the boat like the mast, deck and sternpost were missing – not casualties of time but clearly dismantled once the boat was no longer seaworthy. The craft was a battered old was horse built from a hodgepodge of different woods and scarred by innumerable repairs. It had evidently been beached by its owner and stripped of some of its parts after a long career on the lake. The discovery of pieces of wood from other boats in the mud nearby was a strong indication that the site was a boat junkyard.

Battered though it was, however, it was the first time that a vessel of this antiquity had sailed into view on Lake Kinneret. It is a reasonable assumption that the boat was a prototype of the fishing boats that sailed the lake during much of antiquity. While the remains of many ancient vessels have been found off the country’s Mediterranean shore – larger and far more impressive vessels – none had been preserved intact to this extent. Above all, the period to which the boat was attributed lent it a historic-religious resonance that went far beyond archaeology.

Orna Cohen had arrived on the scene after receiving an SOS from Wachsmann who wanted her advice on how to keep the boat safe against the elements as it emerged from the mud. It had been the hard-packed mud which had preserved it for two millennia by denying oxygen to bacteria in the wood. Once exposed, the wood would disintegrate in a very short time if it became dry. Cohen advised submerging the boat as soon as it was extracted in a pool of water where it would be safe until a program of chemical treatment could be instituted. The Allon Museum, just 300 meters up the shore, offered to make available a site on its grounds for the pool.

But how to get the boat out intact? Parts of it had begun to sag when the supporting mud was cleared away. Calls were hastily made to organizations around the country which had experience moving delicate objects. The Air Force sent officers who offered to lift the boat out with a helicopter and transfer it to its new site. Wachsmann rejected this for fear that the vibrations transmitted through the cable carrying the boat would render it into matchsticks.

An engineer from Haifa Port, after closely examining the boat, told Cohen that it would fall apart if any attempt was made to move it. “If you can get this boat out intact, pick any telephone pole between here and Haifa and I’ll hang myself from it,” he said jauntily.

Other experts agreed, suggesting that instead of moving the boat to a museum, a museum be built around the boat. Wachsmann noted, however, that the rising level of the lake would make that impossible. The waters were already lapping at the edge of the excavation pit, canceling any thought of further digging in the area for other boats.

There was always the alternative, of course, of taking the boat apart and reassembling it on a new site. The likelihood, however, was that the wood sections, once disconnected, would warp out of shape.

It was Cohen herself who finally came up with the solution. With the aid of expert technicians from the kibbutz, the conservationist buttressed the interior of the boat with fiberglass frames, cradled it underneath with fiberglass and polyester ribs, and then cocooned the entire mass with a spray of polyurethane foam which quickly hardened. The boat was now not only safely encased, like a newly set limb within a cast, but buoyant. Waterlogged wood does not float but polyurethane does.

Eleven days after the dig had begun; a dredge broke a passage through the small earthquakes that had been built up around the excavation site to protect it from flooding. The water flowing into the excavation pit raised the boat up to the lake’s surface for the first time since its owner had run it up the beach 2,000 years before. The excavators “walked” the cocooned boat up the lake, gently pulling it in waist-high water to the kibbutz.

Construction of the pool had not been started because few believed the boat would be extracted intact. Within eight days, a giant, tile-lined bathtub was ready. A crane lifted up the pallet on which the boat rested and lowered it inside. The pool was then filled with water and a metal shed built around it. A corridor with a plate-glass window was provided so that visitors could view the pool. The income from tourists during the treatment period was needed to help finance the $500,000 conservation project.

The destiny of the boat now rested squarely in Cohen’s hand. During the vessel’s long submersion, its wood cells had been replaced by water. Cohen’s objective was to fill these waterlogged cells with some other material that would return to the wood much of its inherent strength. She opted for a synthetic wax, polyethylene glycol or PEG, which could be absorbed by wood cells over a period of years by osmosis. The material was being used by conservationists on two medieval warships, the Mary Rose in England and Vasa in Sweden, which had been raised in recent years. In both those cases, the material was being sprayed on. The Kinneret boat, however, was small enough to be entirely immersed in a PEG solution which should substantially cut the number of years of treatment required. She flew to England where she had fruitful consultations with the people working on the Mary Rose and other experts.

It would take two years of preparations before the conservation program could begin. Sixty tons of PEG were obtained free of charge from the Dow Chemical Corporation in the US through the good offices of the US ambassador at the time, Thomas Pickering, an archaeology enthusiast. The chemical was to be diluted in water and heated, which required the installation of heating elements in the pool. The mixture also required constant circulation. For this, Cohen ordered special pumps from England.

The vessel was still a long way from safe harbor. It had been constructed and patched together with seven different types of wood, each of which required a different concentration of chemicals for optimal treatment. Cohen chose a two-step formula which she hoped would apply to all the wood, albeit with different measures of success.

Problems, large and small, dogged the project at every step. At an early stage, when the pool was still filled with water, it became infested with reddish mosquito larvae. One of the kibbutz members solved the problem by slipping some St. Peter’s fish from the lake into the pool. The fish, for whom such larvae are a delicacy, swiftly cleared the water.

The treatment finally got under way in 1988 with the introduction of a 5-percent concentration of PEG into the pool. Cohen permitted herself to go off on a much deserved vacation to the Greek islands. After a few days she called Nitsa Kaplan at the Museum to ask if everything was all right. Kaplan informed her that the pool was bubbling like a wine vat and giving off a bad smell. Grabbing the next plane home, Cohen found that the introduction of the chemical had somehow caused a multiplication of bacteria that were attacking the wood. After samples of the contaminated solution were taken, the pool was flushed and refilled with fresh water. A bacteriologist. Dr. Ayala Barak, came up with a chemical response that permitted the PEG to be reintroduced with no further eruption of bacteria.

The boat and its minders now settled down for a long haul around their private Cape of Good Hope. The treatment process was not static. It required an insertion of additional chemicals every day so as to steadily increase the solution’s density. The temperature likewise had to be slowly adjusted upwards according to a detailed formula. Cohen came down from Jerusalem once or twice a week but the daily tending was left in the hands of Kaplan and the faithful volunteers from Kibbutz Ginossar. “Without them this never could have worked,” says Cohen.

Constant vigilance was required. An extended power failure that cut off the circulation pumps would turn the pool into a solid mass of wax. If the pool leaked and the wood was exposed to the air it would swiftly crumble. If the temperature was wrong or the chemical density off, it would throw the whole process out of kilter. “There was tension all the time and problems all the time,’ says Kaplan. “If something needed fixing we would do it immediately, even on Shabbat.”

Three years into the chemical treatment, the procedure called for draining the original chemical mixture and replacing it with a variety of PEG with larger molecules. This did not come in liquid form like the original batch but as powder. The kibbutz members tended to the arduous task of melting the chemical in boiling water – using a water tank normally used on the kibbutz’s ostrich farm – and pouring it into the pool. In the final stages, the water temperature was raised to 60 degrees centigrade in order to help the wax molecules embed themselves in the wood cells.

Through all the years, the site remained open to visitors who viewed the boat through the plate-glass window. The liquid covering the vessel became steadily more opaque as the chemical concentration was thickened. However, even when it was finally impossible to see anything of the boat at all, about three years ago, tourists continued to come. They made do with a 15-minute film on the boat and the assurance that the by-now mythical craft indeed lay inside the dark pool only a few feet away.

The “Jesus Boat” angle was the main draw. The archaeologists and museum personnel refrained from any such usage, but tour guides were freer to raise the possible connection. Even if it was not a boat that Jesus had actually sailed in, they could safely say it was likely the predominant kind of boat that sailed the lake during his time.

If the boat had any historical association at all, according to archaeologists, it was statistically more likely that it was with a naval battle in 67 CE. A force of armed Jewish militants from Migdal, just north of Tiberias, had taken to the lake in their fishing boats in defiance of the Roman army which had arrived to suppress the Jewish revolt centered on Jerusalem. The Romans went after the boats on the lake in hastily built craft and annihilated the Migdal fighters. The fact that the Kinneret boat was found alongside Migdal and that an arrowhead was dug out of the mud alongside it could be taken as a nudge in that direction. But this too is highly conjectural.

The 8.2-meter-long hull that has been preserved looks like an overgrown row-boat. In antiquity, it had a deck at the stern and perhaps one in the bow as well, according to Prof. J.R. Steffy of the US, one of the world’s foremost authorities on ancient vessels, who examined the boat during the excavation. The open central area gave access to the space below decks where the fishing nets and other gear was stored. A square sail provided locomotion when the wind blew and four men pulled oars when it didn’t. A fifth standing at the rear directed the boat with steering oars.

Pilgrims had taken for years boat excursions from Tiberias up the coast to Capernaum were they would reboard their buses. After docking privileges at Capernaum were rescinded several years ago, Kaplan received a call from a tour company in Tiberias asking whether its boats could dock at the jetty alongside the museum. “I agreed,” she says, “because I was interested in establishing a pattern of tourists passing through here.”

A few months ago, after the maximum concentration of chemicals in the pool had been achieved, Cohen decided that it was time to pull the plug.

The draining got under way on June 26 at 4 a.m. and lasted 10 hours. The boat had not been visible for three years. Its sides, when last seen, had been kept upright by the fiberglass supports inserted during the excavation and by the liquid in the pool itself. As the chemical solution was pumped out and the boat reappeared, Cohen could see that it had remained intact. Even when the liquid no longer supported them, the walls remained upright.

The conservation procedure is not yet over, and in fact never will be. During the coming year the boat will be dried out within its climatically controlled hut, the relative humidity in the chamber being gradually reduced from 80 to 50 percent. It will have to be maintained at that level, says Cohen, and in a cool environment for the rest of its days. After the boat is given a final cleaning, experts will for the first time be able to examine it thoroughly, since there had been little opportunity during the hasty excavation. Steffy will be returning for that purpose in the fall.

Kaplan is hopeful of raising $4.5 million to build the new museum wing. In addition to the boat itself, it is to contain an exhibition describing how the boat was found as well as a depiction of life around the lake 2,000 years ago.

Meanwhile, the chemical pumped out of the pool has been stored in hundreds of cartons in the basement of the museum where it is gelled into something resembling melted wax. “We can use it again if we ever find another ancient boat,” says Cohen with a smile that relays both anticipation and dread.
All Aboard

Reuven Ben-Dori saw the light in 1986 as soon as he learned that a boat from the first century CE had been excavated on the shores of Lake Kinneret.
“I went to the people at Ginossar and I said, ‘You’ve got to call this “the Jesus Boat,” recalls the veteran Tiberias tour operator. “They said ‘No. we’re Jewish.’”

Ben-Dori, needless to say, is Jewish too, but is it a sacrilege to offer pilgrims of another religion what they want? When the Tourism Ministry made the same objection, he said, “If you want to advance tourism, this is the way it should be promoted.”
(Archaeologists say their objection to “Jesus Boat” has nothing to do with theology but with the lack of any evidence linking the boat to Jesus. “He was, after all, a Jew himself,” notes Orna Cohen.)

Ben-Dori and his partner, Yehuda Smadar, never confusing creed with business, obtained the services of a Haifa marine engineer who designed for them a vessel loosely based on the Kinneret boat – although twice its length – and on an intact vessel from the same period depicted in a mosaic. With the assistance of an Egyptian tour operator with whom they had business connections, they ordered construction of the vessel in a village in the Nile Delta whose residents were experienced in building wooden vessels.

“We towed it to Haifa but the customs people didn’t have a category for wooden boats,” says Ben-Dori. “So we imported it under the category of wooden crates.” The vessel was fitted out with a motor in Haifa and transported at night by truck to the Kinneret. The shipping authorities required the company to bring in an expert from Lloyd’s of London to attest to the vessel’s seaworthiness before it could take on passengers.

Ben-Dori’s company, Holyland Sailing, now has five boats on the lake. Competitors were quick to follow with five other wooden boats, and Ben-Dori has two more on order. The older metal boats on the lake, some offering disco sailings, now largely serve the Israeli clientele, says Ben-Dori. The new fleet of wooden boats is used mainly by Christian pilgrims, many of whom find sailing on them a moving religious experience. “At some point in the trip,” says Ben-Dori, “we cut the engine and raise the sail, if there’s a wind. It’s very quiet and that’s when they have a prayer service.”

While it is long odds indeed that the boat abandoned 2,000 years ago off Migdal had anything to do with Jesus, the resurrected castoff from the Migdal junkyard shows signs of becoming a powerful inspirational force and even a quasi-religious icon.

Abraham Rabinovich.  Jerusalem Post Magazine. August 25, 1995, pp.8-9.

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