KIBBUTZ GINOSAR, Galilee-“It was like a miracle,” said Yuval Lufan, his dark eyes lighting up when he describes his find. Kibbutz resident Yuval, then 44, and his brother Moshe, then 31, had discovered a 2,000-year-old boat in Lake Kinneret [also called the Sea of Galilee]. “It changed everything,” he said.
“Until this discovery, there was meager evidence of the realities of life on the waters of the Sea of Galilee,” said Dr. Shelley Wachsmann, then Inspector of Underwater Antiquities for the Israel Department of Antiquities and Mueseums.
But the discovery wasn’t accidental. Lufan was a gardener on the kibbutz and his brother drove a tourist boat. They, like so many Israelis, were amateur archaeologists. “We always dreamed we would find a boat in the lake,” Lufan said, his face dimpling. The brothers had been born on Lake Kinneret and always swam and fished in it. “My life was the Kinneret,” he said.
During the drought of 1985-86, the water level lowered. “The water kept going down,” he said. “After two years of the drought, my brother and I found about 50 coins, some 500 years old, then others 2,000 years old.” They thought that this find might be signs of a civilization, so they searched daily for four days after work.
One day they found a 12-inch-long iron nail, then smaller nails near each other, near the beach. Then they located pieces of wood in the brown and green mud. “We thought we might find a boat,” he exclaimed; the shape resembled one.
He was so excited, he said, “I was flying, like I was on drugs.” It was time to call in the experts.
Mendel Nun, an expert on Sea of Galilee history from nearby Kibbutz Ein Gev who had earlier worked with their father, came over. “We were honored that he came and looked,” Lufan said. He notified Wachsmann, who said that a wooden nail would indicate a very old item. “We dug 10 centimeters and found a wooden nail. We were jumping up and down!” The [experts] said, “You don’t know what you have found!”
“Then,” he adds, “strong rains came. When they stopped, the sun came out and a big double rainbow appeared. It was like you could touch the rainbow,” he said. “We felt like it was a present from heaven.”
The planks and ribs looked like the type of boat found in a mosaic in nearby Migdal, a town founded around the third century BCE and inhabited by Jews; purportedly, Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes here. Nun told me, on my first visit six years ago, that “when we saw the rainbow, we felt it was a sign. At the time, it was the oldest boat in the world.”
Wachsmann was notified on Feb. 4, 1986. He, Nun and Kurt Raveh were shown the curving profile on one side of the boat buried under the mud. They opened a section of its planks and saw signs of mortice-and-tennon joints, hole-and-peg combinations used to build Mediterranean ships up to the Roman era. While probing, they found a large pottery cooking pot and a small oil lamp, both from the first century CE.
Later Carbon-14 tests placed the boat in the period 70 BCE, plus or minus 90 years.
But the ensuing rains threatened that the boat would be lost. After much study, the nearly 30-foot-long, over seven-foot-wide, four –foot-deep vessel was encased in polyurethane, then floated- pulled by an oar-driven rowboat-to a nature museum on the kibbutz [this is a simplified version]. It took 11 days from the beginning of the excavation until floatout.
The vessel was hauled by crane onto the beach and a free-standing hut built around it, placing the boat in a 30-foot-long tile-lined tank filled with heated water. The polyurethane was peeled off. The water was later replaced with polyethylene glycol, displacing the water in the wood cells.
After almost 10 years, when the pool was drained on June 6, 1995, the boat didn’t collapse. It’s now being dried out in a climate-controlled environment. It’s still visible through glass walls in the Styrofoam-covered hut, where I first viewed the boat six years ago.
Within two years, a new wing will be built to harbor the boat.
It’s theorized that close-packed mud had actually preserved the boat made primarily of cedar of Lebanon (other wooden parts consisted of tabor oak, Aleppo pine, acacia, redbud, Christmas thorn, hawthorn and willow) by blocking oxygen and organisms. Its size indicates it was probably used to transport passengers and cargo as well as for fishing.
The museum is named for the late Igal Allon, the noted Palmach commander, Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister who was a member of this kibbutz. It offers a 15-minute film on the find, displays about the original Austrian and German settlers, kibbutz life and Arab-Jewish relationships in the Galilee.
Of the discovery, Yuval said, “It was fantastic. It changed everything.” Besides the fame the discovery brought to the kibbutz and the discoverers, additional archaeology experts and tourists have visited. The tourist boats that previously crossed the lake were metal; since the discovery, they’ve been made of wood in the form of this boat and dubbed the “Jesus boat,” since the original plied these waters about the time of Christ. Rides are accompanied by a fisherman dressed in a long robe and sandals who casts a net into the water (although the net looks suspiciously like nylon).
The 700-resident agricultural kibbutz operates a four-star hotel near Tiberius, the Nof Ginosar Hotel, a favorite with families. A three-story building with 170 air conditioned rooms, lakefront beach with boating plus pool, tennis and large kosher dining room are among attractions. Zvia Rottem at the desk, a lifelong kibbutz resident, is extremely helpful.