Last Sunday (5/12/16) Orlando and I went to a lecture hosted by the Australian institute of Archeology, given by Shelly Wachsman, professor of biblical archeology at Texas A&M university.

Shelly happened to be working for the Israeli department of antiquities in 1986 when the remains of an 8m wooden fishing boat were discovered on the shores of the sea of Galillee, the largest fresh water lake in Israel which is about 12km x 21km. He described the 11 night and day operation to extract the remains from the mud as rainwaters threatened to inundate the site once more, how police were employed to keep treasure hunters away and how heavy machinery was employed to keep the floodwaters back.

Eventually the waterlogged timbers were encased in polyurethane foam and the entire remains were refloated on the lake and towed to the Yigal Alon museum further along the shore. A crane lifted the assembly into a hastily constructed water pool where, over the next 11 years the water in the wood was slowly replaced with Poly Ethlyene Glycol. (I have heard that this is the process they used on the Mary Rose remains in the UK and the Wassa remains in Stockholm. This is apparently the only way to stabilise the wood, which will shrink to dust if it is allowed to dry out.)

This was all good to know – but what about the wooden boat? It turned out that analysis of the timber and construction techniques plus pottery remains found with the boat have dated it at BC50 to AD70. The boat has earned the nickname “the Jesus boat” because of its location and time period. Evidence does suggest that this style of boat may well have been the type that Jesus slept in and called his fisherman disciples from. The location of the boat was not far from Mary Magdalene’s home town.

The construction was very interesting – the planks were edge jointed without caulking using mortice, tenon and peg construction. The tenons were separate pieces of wood with the grain running across the seams. Swelling of the planks in the water was used to provide the watertight seams, as in clinker boats now. The ribs were fixed after the hull was completed using iron nails from the outside. The iron nails were in surprisingly good condition due to the fresh water environment.

Only the bottom part of the boat survives but it does show some shape. The bottom was rather flat and there was a surprising turn of the bilge to vertical topsides. I am guessing that the flatter bottom assisted beaching on the muddy shores of Galillee. The boat was double ended with the widest beam a long way aft in comparison to today’s boats. This wide stern may have had something to do with carrying and raising of nets for fishing.

This particular boat had been made from many different sources of woods, many second hand. The planking was mainly Cedar but there were bits of willow, oak, sycamore and other types in the ribs, keel and stem. Shelly proposed that Roman occupation at the time had made timber a scarce resource, especially for poor fishermen, and that every bit of wood they could get their hands on would be used. The planks were often not full length and none followed nice straight lines, wiggling in and out to maximise the use of wood available. Joints were not scarphed through the thickness as we would do, but along the width of the planks, with the mortice and tenon joints holding the scarph together. There was evidence of a mast step but no one has any idea of what sort of sail would have been used. Shelly showed a model with a “vikingesque” square sail but it didn’t look likely to me.

As a boat builder I found it interesting to see how little our craft has changed over 2000 years – and how the politics of the time influenced design and techniques. I was also fascinated to find out that Israel used to be a verdant forested land – 2000 years of forest exploitation (mainly by invaders I was told) has made Israel the somewhat denuded country it is today. There were lots of lessons for us.

Andrew Yen

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