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The Galilee Boat—2,000-Year-Old Hull Recovered Intact, Shelley Wachsmann, BAR 14:05, Sep/Oct 1988

Galilee boat on way to Ginnosar Museum

A severe drought gripped Israel in 1985 and 1986. The winter rains barely came. Water was pumped from the Sea of Galilee to irrigate parched fields throughout the country. Predictably, the Kinneret (the Hebrew name of the freshwater inland lake also known as the Sea of Galilee) shrank. Wide expanses of lakebed, normally covered with water, were exposed.

A severe drought gripped Israel in 1985 and 1986. The winter rains barely came. Water was pumped from the Sea of Galilee to irrigate parched fields throughout the country. Predictably, the Kinneret (the Hebrew name of the freshwater inland lake also known as the Sea of Galilee) shrank. Wide expanses of lakebed, normally covered with water, were exposed.

In January 1986 they were examining an area south of the kibbutz, where a tractor stuck in the mud had churned up some ancient bronze coins. Nearby they found a few ancient iron nails, and shortly afterwards they saw the oval outline of a boat, entirely buried in the mud.

Of course it could have been a 19th or 20th-century boat as easily as an ancient one. The brothers asked their father, a fisherman of 20 years, whether he had ever heard of a modern boat sinking anywhere near this site. “No” was his reply. Besides, he pointed out, the boat was buried so deeply in the mud that it must have been there for a very long time.

“Ask Mendel,” was the father’s advice.

Mendel Nun is unique. A member of Kibbutz Ein Gev, on the east side of the lake, Mendel has made the Kinneret—in all its aspects from archaeology to zoology—his specialty. He is widely known as Israel’s number one “Kinneretologist.”

Mendel visited the site, but could offer no opinion as to whether the buried boat was ancient or modern. However, he notified Yossi Stefanski, the local inspector for the Department of Antiquities, of the discovery, and Stefanski in turn notified me as the Department’s Inspector of Underwater Antiquities.

On Tuesday, February 4, 1986, I returned from a coastal survey on the Mediterranean to find a note on my desk—something about a boat, possibly ancient, in the Kinneret. The next day I drove to Ein Gev with my colleague Kurt Raveh to pick up Mendel; from there we went to meet the Lufan brothers at Ginnosar.

Over coffee and cake, Yuval and Moshe told us about their discovery. Everyone wanted to know whether the boat was ancient.

I explained that ancient boats found in the Mediterranean were built in an unusual way. The planks of the hull were edge-joined with “mortise-and-tenon” joints that were held in place with wooden pegs. This form of construction has been found as early as the 14th–13th centuries B.C. (it was used in the famous Ulu Burun [Kas] wreck, now being excavated off the coast of Turkey) and continued to be used through the Roman period. All we had to do was scrape away the mud from the top of the uppermost strake (as the continuous lines of planks extending from bow to stern are called) to see whether we could find the dark rectangular remains of the “mortise-and-tenon” joints with round dot-like heads of wooden pegs. This would be the telltale sign that the boat was ancient—assuming, of course, that Kinneret boats developed in a parallel fashion to Mediterranean craft.

The five of us bundled into our jeep and drove to the site. Kurt and I quickly excavated a small section at midship. As we carefully removed the mud, “mortise-and-tenon” joints appeared. They were locked with wooden pegs, the round heads easily visible.

The boat was ancient! This was the first time an ancient boat had been discovered in the Kinneret.

In our excitement, we hardly noticed that it had begun to rain. Suddenly, a torrent of water descended on us. We ran for the jeep. It rained for perhaps a minute and then stopped as suddenly as it had begun. We got out of the jeep and saw a beautiful double rainbow cascading into the Kinneret—straight out of Central Casting, a portent of things to come.

We stood on the shore speculating about the date of the wreck and how it had sunk. Our initial thought was that the boat might have been used by Jews in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (67–70 A.D.) and sunk by the Romans in the famous Battle of Migdal.

As we stood on the shore watching the rainbows fade, Mendel recounted the story as it was told by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus.

At the outbreak of the revolt in 67 A.D., the Jews prepared a war fleet at Migdal (the home of Mary Magdalene, about a mile south of the site where the boat was discovered). This fleet consisted of fishing boats provisioned for battle. Tiberias, a large town at the southern end of the lake, soon surrendered to Vespasian. The Romans then built a large fortified camp between Tiberias and Migdal.

The Jews from Migdal, under Jeshua Ben Shafat, carried out a daring raid on the camp that caught the Romans by surprise. When the Romans managed to organize themselves, the Jews effected an orderly retreat, and taking to their boats, rowed out into the lake. When they reached bowshot range, they anchored “phalanx-like” opposite the Romans and engaged them in an archery battle.

The Romans then attacked Migdal, massacring the Jews in the city. Many of the Jews sought to escape by boat. Those who managed to do so took refuge on the lake, keeping as far out of range of the Romans as they could.

The next day, Vespasian ordered craft to be built to pursue the Jews in their boats. These were quickly prepared. Roman archers and infantry armed with swords and javelins were stationed on the Roman vessels, and battle was soon joined with the refugees on the lake.

In the ensuing battle the Jews “were sent to the bottom, boats and all.” Some tried to escape by breaking through the line of Roman vessels, but to no avail. The Romans reached them with their lances or jumped into their boats and killed them with their swords. Those who fell into the water were dispatched with arrows, while any who tried to climb on to the Roman vessels were beheaded or had their arms cut off by the Romans.

The remaining Jewish boats were driven to land, and the shore became a killing field. Describing the aftermath of the battle, Josephus wrote:
“During the days that followed, a horrible stench hung over the region, and it presented an equally horrifying spectacle. The beaches were strewn with wrecks and swollen bodies, which, hot and clammy with decay, made the air so foul that the catastrophe that plunged the Jews in mourning revolted even those who had brought it about. Such was the outcome of this naval engagement. The dead, including those who earlier fell in the defense of the town (Migdal), numbered 6,700.”

I remember thinking that the battle of Migdal was the nautical equivalent of Masada. Was the buried boat we were looking at a wreck that had washed up on that vermillion beach?

During the next two days we carried out a probe excavation around the boat. We opened a few small sections along its length to determine its state of preservation and to try to date it more accurately. During this excavation, we found two pottery vessels: a cooking pot (or casserole) outside the boat and an oil lamp inside it. Both dated to the early Roman Period (mid-first century B.C. to mid-second century A.D.). The link between this pottery and the wreck was illusive because the pottery was not part of the boat’s cargo. Still, these finds did indicate a period of human activity in the immediate vicinity of the boat.

To protect the boat at the conclusion of the probe, we reburied it. Moshe and Yuval brought a tractor from the kibbutz and pushed pieces of jetsam, old pipes and heavy tree trunks around the site so that no one would drive over it accidentally. As an added precaution, they dug two “decoy” excavations farther down the beach to mislead looters and the just plain curious.

The discovery was to be kept secret until the rising waters of the Kinneret safely covered the boat. At that time it would be possible to reveal its discovery and, hopefully, organize a proper excavation.
That was Friday, February 7th. On Sunday, we were startled to read newspaper reports of a wreck from Jesus’ time that had been discovered in the Sea of Galilee. Somehow the news had leaked. By Monday the press was writing in front page stories about the discovery of the “boat of Jesus.”

The media hype was soon overwhelming. The Ministry of Tourism actively promoted the “Jesus connection” in the hope of drawing pilgrims to Israel. In Tiberias, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, fearful that excavation of the boat would promote Christian missionary work, demonstrated against it.

Soon rumors were circulating that the wreck was full of gold coins. Stories had been making the rounds for years of a ship that sank in the Kinneret during World War I, while carrying payment for the Turkish army. Now our wreck was becoming entwined with these stories, and people began searching for the non-existent treasure.

In Israel it is extraordinarily difficult to keep new archaeological finds hidden. Our boat proved to be no exception. Tuesday night, Moshe and Yuval were watching the site, through field glasses, from Ginnosar. They saw some people with flashlights in the area of the boat. Yuval immediately called me, and I drove to Ginnosar, arriving about midnight. The people had left without finding the boat. The three of us sat in a grove of trees watching the site until 3 a.m. The coast remained deserted. We knew that if we did not excavate the boat soon, there might be no boat to excavate. It was only a matter of time until someone would find and destroy the boat in search of nonexistent treasure.

Archaeology throughout the world is dotted with cases of important discoveries destroyed because looters reached them before the archaeologists. We decided we had to excavate the boat immediately despite the fact that the archaeological and organizational logistics were mind-boggling.

A proper excavation takes time to prepare. Funds must be raised, team members recruited and a myriad of details worked out. Months, and sometimes years, go by before a planned excavation goes into the field. We would go into the field in three days.

The next day, February 12, I spent preparing a detailed excavation proposal for the Director of the Department of Antiquities, Avraham (Avi) Gitan. I made one condition concerning the excavation. We could assemble a local team for the archaeological excavation and conservation, but we were lacking someone who could make sense of the boat’s construction once it was excavated. For this we would have to bring in someone from outside the country. We contacted Professor J. Richard (Dick) Steffy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A & M University, the world’s leading expert on ancient ship construction.
Would he be able to come over on such short notice? If so, how were we going to pay for his trip? We called Dick from Ginnosar. He had already heard about the boat from the newspaper accounts and agreed to spend a week with us from February 20 to 25. Getting a ticket for Dick through governmental channels would be difficult on such short notice. However, the new American ambassador to Israel, Thomas Pickering, was a keen amateur archaeologist, and we wondered out loud whether the embassy might have a cultural grant program that could help in such situations. We contacted the American Embassy, and within 14 hours we had an OK on Dick’s flight.

The excavation was on. Its purpose was to excavate the boat, study it in situ and move it to the Yigal Allan Museum at Kibbutz Ginnosar for conservation—if possible, in one piece. We were to start on Sunday, February 16.

Before we could begin excavating, however, a new problem arose—literally arose. The lake was threatening to cover the boat again.

Moshe and I walked out to the site on Saturday night. When I had first seen the boat, less than two weeks before, the waterline was about 100 feet east of the site. Now it had advanced to within about 30 feet of the boat—and the forecast was for more rain. If the rain continued, the site would soon be inundated.

On the way back to Ginnosar, Moshe tried to cheer me up by saying that perhaps water was being pumped out of the lake for irrigation purposes. The Kinneret serves as the main reservoir of Israel’s fresh water. There are three huge pumps that take water from it to the National Water Carrier.

This gave me an idea that was definitely on the “Far Side.” Perhaps it might be possible to lower the level of the lake by pumping water out of it. I knew that Avi Eitan was meeting with the Minister of Education the next day concerning the boat. I phoned him and asked him to pass on a plea to the Minister of Education to ask the Minister of Agriculture to pump water out of the Kinneret into subsidiary reservoirs that would keep the water level steady until we could finish excavating the boat. In a country where raising the level of the Kinneret is a national passion, I doubted that this would be politically feasible, but it was worth a try.

On the day the excavation was to start, we were delayed by an armed band from a nearby settlement that laid claim to the boat. This matter was settled by the police and by a diplomatic effort on the part of the Director of the Department of Antiquities, who quietly explained that all antiquities belong to the state. We had lost half a day.

As we began excavating in the late afternoon, curiosity seekers crowded around, waiting for us to find the “treasure.” For the next four hours, we excavated next to the boat. It became dark, and the crowd dispersed.

Then we began digging in earnest. With the lake rising steadily, we decided to work around the clock. Gas fishing-lamps lit up the area with an eerie, warm yellow glow. Work went slowly as we removed the mud from inside the boat, being careful to leave a 6-inch layer of mud covering the wood.

The excavation team slowly formed. Orna Cohen was to be our conservationist; Danny Friedman joined as our photographer. Edna Amos, an archaeologist who had worked previously with Kurt and me in the Mediterranean, heard about the project during that first afternoon of excavation and dropped by to say hello. I immediately drafted her as our recorder. Edna worked through that night till 6 o’clock the next morning and returned the next day to become our permanent recorder.

During the evening we received a visit from members of the Kinneret Authority, the governmental body responsible for the lake. They had received a strange message from the Minister of Agriculture—to lower the level of the lake. They assumed that the message had been scrambled—no one in his right mind would want to lower the level of the lake.

I laughed and explained our predicament. They came up with a way to save the site, however, without lowering the level of the lake: Build a massive dike around the site to protect it from the encroaching lake. They promised to return the next morning with workers and supplies.

During the night we cut a narrow section down to the wooden hull at midship. Lying on our stomachs in the cold, wet mud, we excavated it by hand to avoid any possibility of damage to the boat from instruments. The wood slowly appeared; it was beautifully intact.

It was obvious, however, that in excavating clumps of mud in the dark we might miss artifacts. For that reason, all the mud excavated inside and next to the boat was placed in plastic boxes, which were given basket numbers and their positions recorded. The boxes were dumped in numbered piles that were later examined for artifacts. Moshe found an ancient pyramidal arrowhead in this way. More about this later.
Shortly after 6 a.m. Monday morning, the wind suddenly shifted to an easterly. It began pushing the water toward the boat. But it was not long thereafter that the Kinneret Authority team arrived, like the proverbial cavalry, and began building a dike of earthworks and sandbags around the site to protect it from the rising water. The site was saved from the encroaching water. Although the lake continued to rise, there was no longer a problem of water.

It is impossible to describe the effect the excavation had on everyone involved. Kibbutz Ginnosar “adopted” the excavation, supplying volunteers and logistics. The kibbutzniks would finish their own day’s work and then join us for another eight or ten hours at night. Volunteers arrived from all over the country. The excitement was infectious. By the second afternoon, members of Moshav Migdal had also joined us. Previous arguments about where the boat would be exhibited were laid aside as we all pulled together in a concerted effort to save the boat. Because of this new-found harmony, we nicknamed it “the Love Boat.”

On the second day of the excavation, as we were widening the excavation pit with a backhoe (lent by a moshavnik from Migdal), Zvika Melech, another moshavnik, showed me some pieces of waterlogged wood. We could not stop using the backhoe because enlarging the pit was our top priority, but now each shovel load had to be dumped in front of us and examined. We removed the loose pieces of waterlogged wood. The shovel load was then dumped on the side of the pit where Moshe, using a metal detector, removed iron nails. Suddenly sticking his hand into the pool of water, Zvika yelled, “This wood is connected to something!” Zvika had found what Dick Steffy later identified as fragments of two additional boats. The boat fragments were sandbagged, and we began excavating there by hand. Zvika, of course, was put in charge of the area.

On the second evening of excavation, the upper part of the partially excavated stern on the starboard quarter of the boat buckled. We had dug too far on either side without supporting it sufficiently. Someday, when the boat is reconstructed, those timbers will be refitted to the boat. But that evening was one of the worst I can remember. We all felt that despite our best efforts the boat was falling apart.

In order to avoid touching the fragile wood while excavating, Moshe built a series of metal bridges, on which the excavators could lie, over the boat. As the excavation progressed, the bridges were raised, and a platform suspended on ropes was lowered from it. Excavators lay prone on this platform for hours as they dug out the remaining mud by hand.

Each part of the boat was tagged and numbered. White plastic tubing was used to outline the strakes to enhance photographic recording. By the time Dick Steffy arrived on the fifth day of excavation, much of the hull had been exposed. Dick’s presence at the excavation site gave us all a feeling of security. His vast knowledge and good common sense were invaluable.

At the conclusion of a normal excavation, the excavator gives a few boxes of artifacts to the conservationist. But in our case, the boat itself was one big conservation problem. At the beginning of the excavation I had called in Orna Cohen, an archaeologist turned conservator, who had just returned from a year of studies in England to take charge of this problem.

By the eighth day of excavation, the archaeological aspects of the excavation had been completed. Now the question was how to move the boat. It was Orna’s ball game.

The craft’s wooden timbers were thoroughly water-logged. This meant that the cellular material inside the wood cells had been replaced with water to the degree that the wood, according to Orna’s study, was now 80 percent water and had the consistency of wet cardboard. Any evaporation of water from such wood is extremely dangerous, causing the cell walls to collapse. This process is irreversible; the wood shrinks and fragments, and it cannot be restored to its former structure. Because of such dangers during the excavation, we sprayed the boat with water day and night, and even covered it with wet sponges and polyethylene sheets, in addition to shading it from direct sunlight.

Moving an entire boat of such soft material was a nearly impossible mission—and yet we had to move it approximately 1–600 feet to the Yigal Allon Museum at Kibbutz Ginnosar.

Orna consulted experts on the transport of large objects. It seemed that it was impossible to move a 26 foot-long boat of such fragile wood without seriously damaging it.

But Orna devised a method that had never been tried before. She decided to strengthen the boat inside and out with a fiberglass-and-polyester resin frame molded to the shape of the hull. The entire boat would then be encased in a polyurethane foam “straight jacket” to hold it together. We were-going to attempt to move the boat intact.

First, frames of fiberglass/polyester (strengthened with old pieces of PVC irrigation hose) were laid down inside the boat. Then the entire hull was covered with fine plastic sheeting, and polyurethane foam was sprayed into the hull. This material sprays on as a dark orange liquid and quickly bubbles up and solidifies, looking every bit like a living entity engulfing the boat.

Next we excavated narrow tunnels under the boat. External fiberglass frames were then molded to the outside of the hull and the tunnels were filled with polyurethane. These polyurethane strips hardened into external supports for the boat. This allowed the remaining clay and mud beneath the boat to be excavated. Fiberglass trusses were again added and the remaining areas were filled with polyurethane. By the end of the process, the entire boat—without having been moved or shifted—had been wrapped in a protective cocoon that looked somewhat like an overgrown, melted marshmallow.

Now that it was packaged, how would we move it? We considered carrying it overland by truck or helicoptering it out, but the related movement and vibrations were likely to destroy the boat. In the end, Orna opted for the obvious solution.

Once the boat was “packaged,” we pumped water back into the excavation pit. Buoyed by the polyurethane, the boat floated at lake level. With a steam shovel, a channel through our precious dike was opened to the lake. The boat was floated through this channel out into the lake. For the first time in two millennia, the boat “sailed” again to the cheers of an onlooking crowd.

The entire excavation had taken eleven exhausting days and nights.

The next day, the boat was lifted onto the shore by a huge crane. Within ten days thereafter, a reinforced concrete pool with white tiles was constructed to serve as the boat’s conservation tank. The boat was then raised once again by crane and placed inside the empty conservation pool.

Now began the long and laborious task of removing the polyurethane casing—tantamount to re-excavating the boat. We had not thought of putting trip-wires inside the polyurethane casing; we paid dearly for this mistake. In the tight confines of the conservation pool, the re-excavation was doubly difficult.

We could not fill the conservation pool with water and submerge the boat until all the polyurethane had been removed; otherwise, some parts of the boat would strain to float and the stress would cause breakage. But the boat was now drying out at an alarming rate, no matter how much we sprayed it with water. As time passed, it seemed we were losing the battle. Hairline cracks began to appear. I felt like a doctor about to lose his patient at the end of an extensive operation.

In what was surely the 11th hour, we finally finished the re-excavation of the boat and submerged it in water—and we ourselves nearly dropped from exhaustion.

The boat will now be treated for a period of five to seven years. A synthetic wax called PEG (polyethylene glycol) will be added to the water in slowly increasing concentrations. Simultaneously, the temperature of the water will be gradually raised. In this way, the PEG will penetrate the cellular cavities of the deteriorated wood and replace the water in the cells. At the conclusion of this years-long process, we will be able to exhibit the boat outside the conservation pool and study it in a dry environment. In the meantime, entrepreneurs from Kibbutz Ein Gev and from Tiberias are ferrying tourists across the lake to see “the boat from Jesus’ time.”

It does seem that the boat fits this time range and is of the type that would have been used by Jesus and his disciples.

I have already mentioned the pottery that gave us a general idea of the date of the boat. Dr. David Adan-Bayewitz of Bar-Ilan University, who studied this pottery, considerably narrowed the time range.
By comparing the datable pot sherds found in the excavation to nearby stratified assemblages, he concluded that the pottery found with the boat is typical of the latter part of the first century B.C. to the decades following the mid-first century A.D., or until about the year 70 A.D. As noted previously, this pottery does not date the boat directly; however, it does indicate a period of human activity in the immediate area of the boat. This period appears to end at the time of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome and may be related to the decimation of the population of Migdal at that time.
It therefore seems likely that the boat arrived at the site prior to the battle of Migdal.

Wood from the boat itself was dated by the carbon-14 method. Dr. Israel Carmi of the Department of Isotope Research of the Weizmann Institute carried out analysis on ten samples of wood from the boat and arrived at an average date of 40 B.C., plus or minus 80 years; that is, from 120 B.C. to 40 A.D.b

Dick Steffy independently came to about the same conclusion based on his knowledge of ancient boats. In his hand-written report to the Director of the Department of Antiquities, Dick wrote: “If this were a hull found in the Mediterranean I would date it between the first century B.C. and the second century A.D.” He noted, however, that building traditions may have continued in the Kinneret after they had gone out of use in the Mediterranean.

Admittedly, each of the dating methods is insufficient in itself; however, taken together, these different dating techniques suggest a date between the first century B.C. and the late first century A.D.
Dr. Ella Werker of the Department of Botany at Hebrew University examined the wood from which the boat was made. This examination revealed that while most of the boat was constructed of cedar planking and oak frames, there are five other woods represented by single examples. These are: sidar, Aleppo pine, hawthorn, willow and redbud.

The boat is 26 ½ feet long, 7 ½ feet wide and 4 ½ feet high. It has a rounded stern and a fine bow. Both the fore and aft sections were probably decked in, although the boat was not preserved to this height.
Dick Steffy’s study of the boat suggests that it had been built by a master craftsman who probably learned his craft in the Mediterranean or had been apprenticed to someone who had. But he had to use timber that was far inferior to what was used on Mediterranean vessels. Perhaps better materials were beyond the financial reach of the owner. Many of the timbers in our boat, including the forward portion of the keel, were apparently in secondary use, having been removed from older boats.

The boat must have had a long life, for it had been repeatedly repaired. It ended its life on the scrap heap. Its usable timbers—including the stempost and sternpost—were removed; the remaining hull, old and now useless, was then pushed out into the lake where it quickly sank into the silt.

Did the boat have a mast? Steffy’s careful detective work demonstrated that it did. A mast cannot be placed directly on a hull. It normally sits on a construction of wood called a mast step. This may be a simple block of wood or a complicated construction. Steffy found four nail holes where the mast block had been connected to the keel. The impression of the mast block was still visible on the top side of the keel. The mast block, like so many other reusable parts of the boat, had been removed in antiquity.

The boat could thus be both sailed and rowed. It was probably used primarily for fishing, but could also serve for transportation of goods and passengers. During times of armed conflict, it could serve as a transport.

The recovery of an ancient arrowhead in the excavation may indicate that a battle took place in this area. Arrowheads of the same pyramidal design have been recovered outside and next to the walls of Gamla on the Golan heights, another site where, despite an initial Jewish military success, the Romans successfully routed Jewish defenders, after a battle that ended in bloody disaster.c Danny Friedman, our photographer, who also works at Gamla, studied the pyramidal arrowhead found at our site. This type of arrowhead is apparently of foreign origin and was probably a specialty of a foreign auxiliary archer unit attached to the Roman legions. (Only 14 of approximately 1600 arrowheads found at Gamla are of this type.)

The fact that fragments of two other boats and other wooden debris were found during the excavation suggests to Dick that the area was used for building and repairing boats. This conclusion is also supported by the circumstance that before our boat was sunk, parts that might be used in other boats were removed—much like an old car today might be kept near a garage to serve as a source for used parts.
Was our boat typical of the kind referred to so often in connection with Jesus and his disciples in the Gospels and in Josephus’ description of the battle of Migdal?

During the excavation, Dick had suggested that there were probably four rowers on a boat like ours.

At first this seemed to be contradicted by a mosaic picture of a boat found at Migdal. The mosaic shows a boat that apparently had three oars on each side. But when I examined the Migdal mosaic boat more closely I discovered that the two forward oars were represented as a single line of red tesserae (mosaic stones) that stood out against the black and white hull; but the sternmost oar widened at the bottom—it was a steering oar. The boat in the mosaic must have had four rowers, as Dick had predicted for our boat, and a helmsman—a crew of five.

Then I reexamined some passages in Josephus in which he describes how, when he was commander of the Jewish rebel forces in Galilee, he put four sailors in each of the boats; elsewhere he talks of a helmsman—thus each boat again had a crew of five.

How many people could our boat hold? In one passage in Josephus he refers to himself, some friends, and seven combatants in a boat, which, with a crew of five, would total at least 15. In another passage, he tells of ten men of Tiberias who were transported in a single “fishing boat.” With a crew of five, this too would total 15 men.

Based on skeletons he has examined, Joe Zias, a physical anthropologist at the Department of Antiquities, estimates that, in the Roman-Byzantine period, Galilean males were about 5 feet, 5 inches tall and averaged about 140 pounds. Fifteen such men would weigh just over a ton and could fit into our boat.

A boat like this could easily accommodate Jesus and his disciples, who regularly used boats on the Sea of Galilee (See Matthew 8:18, 23–21, 9:1, 14:13–14, 22–32, 15:39, 16:5; Mark 4:35–41, 5:18, 21, 6:32–34, 45–51, 8:9–10, 13–14; Luke 6:1, 8:22–25, 37, 40; John 6:16–21.) The gospel passages do not indicate precisely, however, how many disciples were in the boat with Jesus during the recorded boat trips on the Sea of Galilee.

While the Gospels do not help in defining passenger capacities, there are two references to crew sizes.

Jesus called James and John, the sons of Zebedee, while they were in their boat tending their nets “and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him” (Mark 1:20). Thus, the boat of the Zebedee family was crewed by at least five men (Zebedee, James, John and two or more hired servants).

In mid-April 1987, over a year after the conclusion of the excavation, I wrote to Dick, suggesting this working hypothesis: The Kinneret Boat represents a class used on the lake during the Second Temple period. This is apparently the same class described by Josephus and in the Gospels and represented in the Migdal Mosaic.

Dick replied:
“Your working hypothesis sounds okay, but may I make a further suggestion? Shell construction limited design possibilities, so there probably were not as many different boat designs on the Kinneret in antiquity as there are today. I suspect there were small boats—rowboats for one or two fisherman—and big boats such as ours. They may have varied somewhat in appearance and size, but basically they must have been limited to a couple of different hull forms in any given period. Without propellers to push them along, it seems unlikely that boats much larger than ours would have been practical on such a small body of water.”

Is there any historical evidence for the smaller boat types that Dick postulated? Perhaps. Small boats may be inferred from another story Josephus tells about his adventures in Tiberias.
Pursued by an angry crowd, Josephus and two of his bodyguards “advanced to the rear” by commandeering a boat moored nearby and making a dash for it. Considering the speedy exit, it seems likely that they had taken a smaller type of boat.

Mendel Nun explained to me that boats of similar size to our boat were still in use on the Kinneret at the beginning of the 20th century—prior to the introduction of the motor. Known as Arabiye, they were used with a seine net. This type of net, used for catching shoals of fish near shore requires a boat 20 to 25 feet long. The net is spread out with its ropes as the boat advances. The net varies in size from about 500 to 1500 feet long, and requires a large stern platform to handle. Known as a sagene in Greek, this type of net is referred to by Jesus in the parable in which he compares heaven to a net:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous” (Matthew 13:47–50).

Because a boat that uses this kind of net requires a large stern platform, this might enable us to picture more accurately the episode in which Jesus stilled the waters of the Sea of Galilee. A storm arose while Jesus with some of his disciples was crossing from one side of the lake to the other. In Mark’s version of the story, Jesus was “in the stern, asleep on the pillow” (Mark 4:37). The large stern deck may explain why Jesus chose the stern in which to sleep. The stern deck was the station of the helmsman. While it would have been exposed to the elements, the area under the stern platform would have been the most protected area of the boat. Jesus probably slept beneath the stern platform. There he would have had the greatest protection from the elements and been out of the way of the other people on board:
“And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the pillow; and they woke him and said to him, ‘Master, do you not care if we perish?’ And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:37–39).

More than a century ago, it was noted that the definite article used in relation to the pillow indicates that this was part of the boat’s equipment. This may have been a sandbag used for ballast. Such ballast sacks were used on sailboats in the Mediterranean that used the seine net. There were two types of these: one, weighing 110–130 pounds, called in Arabic kiÆs s\aµbuÆra which means “balance (or ballast) sack;” or two sandbags of about 55 pounds each, used together. The latter was called a “balance (or ballast) pillow” (Arabic: meh\adet s\aµbuÆra).

These sandbags were used to trim the boat when under sail; when not in use, they were stored beneath the stern deck where they could be used as pillows by crews resting there.

In conclusion, the Kinneret Boat is of the class referred to both in the Gospels in relation to Jesus’ ministry in the Sea of Galilee region, and by Josephus in his description of nautical warfare on the lake during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.

At present we have no proof that our boat played any part in these momentous events. But it does allow us better to understand them and seafaring on the Kinneret nearly 2,000 years ago.

Posted in: Persian Period

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