LAKE KINNERET, Israel – A 2,000-years-old fishing boat preserved beneath the biblical Sea of Galilee has emerged from a decade of conservation treatment to take its place as one of Israel’s greatest potential tourist attractions. Dubbed by Journalists “the Jesus Boat” when it was found a decade ago, the craft already has inspired tour operators to launch a fleet of wooden lookalikes on lake Kinneret, as the Sea of Galilee is known today.
The sailings have proven so popular with Christina pilgrims that there already are a dozen “Jesus Boat” clones on the lake with more on order. In “Christening” the vessels, the Jewish boat owners have used up the names of most of the Apostles and are scanning the unfamiliar New Testament for ideas.
Archaeologists wince at the Jesus hype which threatens to turn a worn-out boat that had been junked in antiquity into a religious icon. But it was the archaeologists who dated the boat to the first century B.C., a period that includes Jesus’ ministry to the fishermen on the lake. Archaeologist Shelley Wachsmann, who was in charge of the excavation team, calculated the chances as one in 1,000 that the boat was actually one of the two with which Jesus is specifically connected in the New Testament.
Remote as the chance might be, however, it cannot be denied that it exists. It is this electric possibility that makes the 26.1/2-foot-long, patched-up hull such an attraction, particularly for devout Christians. Even if Jesus never laid eyes on it, let alone foot in it, it is probably typical of the kind of boat in which he would have sailed. The boat would have been propelled by four oarsmen when the wind didn’t fill its square sail.
The survival of the boat constitutes an archeological miracle of goodly proportions – some of course, will see that as Godly proportions. It was discovered 10 winters ago when a severe drought lowered the level of the lake and exposed large mud flats along its shores. Two brothers from Kibbutz Ginosar, which lies on the lake, were walking over the flats when they spotted the outlines of the boat projecting slightly above the mud.
In a complex emergency excavation, archaeologists succeeded in extracting the vessel intact, despite the exceedingly fragile state of the wood.
Two things about the boat became 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 in antiquity. The craft, of which only the battered hull remained, was an old was-horse built of a hodgepodge of poor quality woods and scarred by innumerable repairs. It had evidently been beached by its owner and stripped of some of its major parts after a long career on the lake. The discovery of pieces of wood from other boats in the mud nearby indicated that the site probably had been a boat junkyard.
Battered though it was, however, it was the first time that an ancient boat has sailed into view on Lake Kinneret. Organic material, including wood, deteriorates swiftly in warm freshwater lakes like the Kinneret. What had preserved the boat through the millennia was the closely packed mud that encased it, preventing oxygen from feeding the organisms that would have destroyed it.
Once the mud was removed, the waterlogged wood would have crumbled if permitted to dry out, since the cells were filled with water. The excavated boat was encased in polyurethane and floated about 450 yards up the lake to a site alongside the Yigal Allon Center, a nature museum on the lakefront. A crane deposited the craft in a specially built pool to await conservation treatment.
The method chosen by Orna Cohen of the Israel Antiquities Authority involved use of a synthetic wax – polyethylene glycol – to replace the water in the wood cells, an osmosis process that would take years. The chemical was added in daily doses to the water in which the boat was immersed. The temperature of the pool was raised in stages until it reached about 140 degrees Fahrenheit while circulation pumps kept the thickening chemical from jelling into a solid block of wax.
The boat’s inspirational powers became evident even during the treatment process. As the chemical dosage was increased, the fluid became steadily more murky until, about three years ago, it became totally opaque. Pilgrims, however, continued to come to look at it through a plate glass window in the hut, which had been built around the pool. In what amounted to an act of faith, they were convinced that “the Jesus Boat” was there, only a few yards away, even though they couldn’t see it. It was a conviction not altogether shared by Cohen. “I didn’t know what we’d find when we drained the pool,” the conservationist said in August. “There was a reasonably good chance that the boat had collapsed.”
Late in June, with completion of the time allotted for treatment, the pool was drained. As the solution was slowly pumped out, it became evident that the boat had survived its 2,000-year voyage in remarkable condition. Unsupported by mud or liquid, the wood remained upright.
The conservation procedure isn’t over, however, and, in fact, never will be.
During the coming year the boat will be carefully dried, the relative humidity in its climatically controlled chamber being slowly reduced from 80 percent to 50 percent. The Kinneret boat will have to be maintained in a climate-controlled environment for the remainder of its days, but it won’t need to be immersed again in protective fluid.
After the boat is given its final cleaning, experts for the first time will be able to examine it thoroughly, since there had been little opportunity during the hasty excavation. The study is expected to shed important light on boat-building methods in antiquity. A new wing will include a depiction of life around the lake 2,000 years ago as well as an exhibition describing how the boat was extricated.
Meanwhile, the Kinneret boat will be on view in the now-empty pool where it had undergone treatment. The resurrected castoff from a boat junkyard has reached safe harbor.
The Denver Post, Sunday, September 10, 1995