In 1985 a severe drought in Israel caused countrywide water shortages. Lake Galilee, in the north, is the country’s primary source of water. Towns and cities, industries and farmers placed extreme demands on the little lake draining it to unusually low levels. Where the water once lapped against the shoreline in some places the waters edge was hundreds of metres walk. The lake was dangerously low. Not only was irrigation at risk but also natural ecology was being threatened.
One benefit surfaced in these troubled waters: the ancient timber frame of an old fishing boat appeared, trapped in the lake’s muddy bottom.
Two brothers from Kibbutz Ginosar, on the northwest bank of the Sea of Galilee, discovered the waterlogged vessel. It had been buried in and thus preserved by, the sediments of the freshwater lakebed. Its timbers had survived for centuries, sunk in the mud well beneath the usual waterline.
The Miraculous Rescue Operation
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) alerted the public and assisted by many volunteers the Jesus Boat, as it quickly became known, was miraculously resurrected in a remarkable eleven-day rescue operation. The timbers of the black waterlogged hull still held their original shape. To protect the boat’s delicate rib structure excavators packaged the fragile hull in a fibreglass cocoon and carefully pumped in polyurethane foam. This solidified to provide a rigid shroud to its feeble frame. The light foam permitted the structure to be gracefully floated and brought to shore.
Over many years the undersea currents and the dragging anchors of other vessels sailing above had damaged the boat’s upper section, so that only the hull remained in salvageable condition. The small ship is impressively long at 8.2 m and being over 2.3 m wide made a comfortable fishing boat for Galilee’s fishermen.
The Museum’s Modern Restoration Process
Restoration of sodden timber is not a matter of putting it out in the sun to dry. In fact the extensive conservation project took eleven carefully monitored years in a specially built preservation pool. To conserve it, the boat was submerged in liquid polyethylene glycol (PEG), a synthetic wax solution that slowly replaced the water in the wood cells. The frame was eventually dried very slowly and excess wax was cleaned off. The process does not permit the boat to sail again but is sufficient for it to be placed on public exhibition in the museum’s atmosphere-controlled environment.
Analysing its Structure
It is built using the common ancient Mediterranean style known as carvel building. Unlike the overlapping planks of European clinker-built style boats this sailing boat uses pegged mortise-and-tenon joints to edge-join the cedar and oak planking and is further held together using iron nails.
The boat displays a number of repairs and the multiplicity of wood types tends to suggest that this workman of the sea had a long and chequered life by an owner of meagre means. Based on specific details that were discovered, it suggests this Galilean fishing boat sailed on Lake Galilee as a contemporary to Jesus and His disciples.
Dating the Fishing Boat
The boat’s shape and the cooking pot and lamp found in it point to an age of 2000 years old. Attempting to accurately date any water saturated organic substances using the Carbon 14 method is always unreliable yet tests applied to the wood gave the same age. The Jesus Boat certainly belongs to the Gospel period and one suggestion places the boat’s sinking to the time of the AD67 war against Rome. Roman soldiers overran the nearby town of Magdala and sank all Jewish vessels in the lake.
A porthole into the Past
Of course, there is no accurate way to prove any connection between this boat and Jesus or any of his fishermen friends from the Galilee. Like so many discoveries, the once drowned sailing boat presently guards her secrets of the past. The boat can be visited today at the Yigal Alon Center on the banks of Lake Galilee. This humble vessel is an extraordinary porthole, providing a peek into the past’s muddy waters and gleaning a glimpse of the Galilean seafarers that form the backdrop to the gospel narratives.