In the winter of 1986, after several years of drought, the water level of the Sea of Galilee dropped by several meters and the shoreline had receded considerably. Two young men, walking along the shore south of their kibbutz – Ginosar, situated on the western bank of the lake – noticed the outline of a boat in the mud. Experts called in to examine the discovery concluded that the remains of the ancient boat had been found. It was decided to excavate it immediately, before the possible rise of the water level.
Innovative and sophisticated techniques were required for lifting and moving the boat. First, a massive dike was built around the site to prevent the lake from inundating it, while pumps were used to keep the ground water out. The wood had to be kept wet during the removal of the silt from inside the hull, which was then strengthen with fiberglass and filled with polyurethane. Tunnels were dug under the boat and its sides strengthened.
When the extremely fragile remains of the boat were safely packed, water was pumped into the big pit that had been created during the excavation, and the boat was floated to shore. It was placed in a specially built conservation pool at the Yigal Allon Museum of Kibbutz Ginosar, where the polyurethane casing was removed and the boat re-submerged in water. In a process which took several years, synthetic wax was added to the wood, to give it sufficient structural strength for display outside the pool.
The boat was found lying perpendicular to the shore, its stern toward the lake; only the lower portion of the rounded stern was preserved. The boat’s length is 8.2 m., its width 2.3 m. and its depth 1.2 m. It was built in the known “shell first’ fashion, with mortise and tenon joinery and constructed mainly of cedar planks and oak frames. Much of the wood was in secondary use, i.e., it had been removed from older, obsolete boats. Additional wood fragments were uncovered nearby, attesting that the boat was found in a place that had served as a shipyard. It was large enough to carry 15 people, including a crew of five. Though apparently used for fishing, it may also have transported passengers and goods.
By the construction techniques and two pottery vessels found near it, archaeologists judged that the boat was from the Roman period. Carbon-14 tests confirmed that the boat had been constructed and used between 100 BCE and 70 CE.
The few details known about boats on the Sea of Galilee during Roman time are from written sources, such as Josephus Flavius and the New Testament, and from mosaic floors depicting boats. The discovery of this ancient boat of the Sea of Galilee therefore received worldwide attention.
Hillel Geva studied archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, participated in excavations in the Jewish Quarter and the Citadel of Jerusalem, is author of the entry “Jerusalem” in the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land and editor of Ancient Jerusalem Revealed.