In 1985 a kibbutznik named Ami Eshel of Kibbutz Ma‘agan Mikhael was diving not far from the beach of the kibbutz, 20 miles south of Haifa, when he noticed an unusual pile of rocks with a beam of blackened wood protruding from it. This was, it turned out, what fellow-kibbutz-member Elisha Linder had been looking for for years. Linder is a professor at Haifa University and the father of maritime archaeology in Israel; he had long dreamed of finding an ancient wreck off the coast of the kibbutz—and here it was. A 2,400 year-old ship at the kibbutz’s doorstep.
The Ma‘agan Mikhael ship is a single-masted cargo vessel estimated to have been 43 feet long. Though it was probably a thoroughly ordinary craft in its day (about 400 B.C.), for us it is an object of extraordinary rarity primarily because it is in such good condition. Sealed for centuries beneath several feet of sand and clay, the boat was so well-preserved that the underwater archaeologist who excavated it could smell the resin in the wood. Indeed, they uncovered not just the ship’s frame, planks and anchor, but ropes (square knots!), wooden hand-tools, cooking pots and cosmetics cases. The archaeologists had to disassemble the nearly intact hull in order to recover it from the sea, doing more damage than two millennia of tides and currents.
Once the ship’s parts were recovered, preservation and reconstruction could begin. Many of the timbers were so fragile that they could not support their own weight and had to be immediately immersed in water. Salt had to be leached out of the wood by incrementally draining sea water from the tanks holding the ship parts and replacing it with fresh water, a process that took another two years. Since the wood was too soft to be worked with, it was placed in a bath of polyethylene glycol (PEG). Four years later the PEG had replaced all the water in the wood’s pores, making it strong enough for archaeologists to begin trying to reassemble the vessel.
Working without plans for the ship, the conservation team, lead by Kahanov, had to resort to patient trial and error. They tried to rebuild the ship—with its 25-foot keel and 18 strakes of hull planking—in the same order that it had originally been made, but it did not help that the puzzle pieces were no longer the right size and shape- The ship’s wood, after being water-sodden for 2,400 years, was often deformed when it was removed from the sea and had to be reshaped by means of forms and PEG. To date, the researchers have taken apart and reassembled the ship three separate times. Each time they’ve discovered a mistake, and each time they’ve been able to apply what they’ve learned to put the pieces back together more precisely. Although finished, the team has refrained from connecting the ship’s pieces with glue or any other sort of fastener. According to Kahanov, “If someone in the future decides that what we did is wrong, the ship can be disassembled and they can start over again. The only condition is that they put it back together again!”