Find of a lifetime

Professor Elisha Linder pints to two sections of the 2,400-year-old ship his neighbor discovered in 1985 is being re-assembled in the Ma’agan Michael Ship Museum, especially built to house the ship on the premises of the University of HaifaElisha Linder …

Professor Elisha Linder pints to two sections of the 2,400-year-old ship his neighbor discovered in 1985 is being re-assembled in the Ma’agan Michael Ship Museum, especially built to house the ship on the premises of the University of HaifaElisha Linder spent much of his career as co-founder of the Israeli Society for Underwater Exploration scouring the Israel northern coastline in the hopes of uncovering an ancient trading ship. So it was with no small amount of well-appreciated irony that when he finally achieved his dream over 35 years later, it was literally in the own backyard of his kibbutz.

The 2,400-year-old ship Linder’s neighbor discovered in 1985 is being re-assembled in the Ma’agan Michael Ship Museum, especially built to house the ship on the premises of the University of Haifa.

The ship, which lay buried in the sand near the shore of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael from the time of the construction of the Second Temple, is one of the most complete ancient ships ever recovered from the sea.

In the mid-1950′s, Linder became a member of Ma’agan Michael, which is 30km south of Haifa. He saw the ancient artifacts that the kibbutz fishermen had trawled from the depths as the fingerprints of millennia of commerce along the coast, and a sign that the sea could be a fertile field for archeology in Israel. Together with ex-frogmen from the naval commando base at nearby Atlit, he founded the Israel Society for Underwater Exploration. The Society did valuable work in the excavation of the ancient harbors at Caesaria, Atlit and Acre, but this did not satisfy the historian’s ambition to uncover an ancient trading ship.

He regards a ship as “…a microcosm of political, economic, cultural and technological activity.. It serves as a bridge between different cultures and peoples carrying goods, ideas and technologies.”

Towards this end, he spent his summer vacations in places like Italy and Crete searching for boat wrecks from Phoenician times.

For all his professionalism, he could not predict that a member of his own kibbutz would make the find on his own doorstep. The pile of unusual rocks and the protruding beam of blackened wood that his fellow kibbutznik Ami Eshel noticed 75 meters offshore in less than 1.5 meters of water turned out to be a 14 meter, wooden-hulled merchantman. Its crew had beached their ship in about 500 BCE, and left it to be buried under the sands that sweep northwards along the coast. Eshel’s discovery took place in September, 1985.

A team of marine and nautical archeologists, led by one of Linder’s students, Yaacov Kahanov, took two years to excavate the hull and transfer it to the Museum laboratories. The ship was remarkably complete – the keel, mast step, and nearly 70 percent of the ribs and planking were intact. The vessel had been built by the “shell first” method by which the planks that run along the length of the ship are butted together and secured by closely spaced mortise-and-tenon joints, and the supporting ribs are inserted into the resulting shell.

Before the archeologists could re-assemble the ship, they had to preserve and strengthen the timbers, which prolonged submersion had weakened. The soaked the wood in fresh water and then in polyethylene glycol, which replaces the water in the pores and binds the mass into stable body. Together with the subsequent seasoning of the reconstituted wood, this process took nearly ten years.

In 1999, re-assembly started in the new museum with Linder as its director – adjacent to the Hecht Museum of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. It was planned to rebuild the ship from the original materials and by the “shell first” method her original constructors had used. To this end, an adjustable wooden scaffold was built as a template for the hull. The keel was laid, and the end posts and the side planks were positioned, and then the existing cross ribs were introduced and fixed to the side planks. The work was exacting, as many of the pieces had to be heat-treated to remove distortion introduced in the preservation process.

The work is now in an advanced state; its completion awaits a special framework to support the permanent exhibit. Nevertheless, the ship, as it stands on its temporary cradle, is on display to the public. It is a tribute to the skill of Israel’s nautical archeologists.

But it is more than a display. It is, and will remain, a research and educational tool. The staff and students of the University recorded the work of assembly and restoration, and studied the ship and it components in detail as assembly proceeded; and it is intended to make it available for further study.

The identity of ship remains a mystery, although the wreck yielded numerous artifacts – 70 pieces of ceramic ware, ropes, a lead ingot, a set of wooden carpenter’s tools, and a perfectly intact, unique, one-armed wooden anchor with its ropes still attached. The primary cargo was the 12 tons of rocks that the vessel carried. These are schists from which roofing slates can be split, and are thought to have originated on an island in the eastern Aegean Sea.

Linder’s former student, Kahanov, now Curator of the museum, directs ongoing work in nautical archeology. He comes to the work as an enthusiast for the sea and boats, first, and then as an historian.

“I am mad about the subject. I love to be at the sea, to look at ships, to deal with ships, and to study ships,” he said. “And I would die to find an even older ship!”

Together with members of the Department of Marine Archeology, he is continuing to search the Israeli coast. A systematic program at the Tantura lagoon (a few kilometers north of Ma’agan Michael) has located three wrecks, and is currently excavating them.

In order to further understanding of shipping in antiquity, Kahanov plans to build a sea-going replica of the Ma’agan Michael ship using the same methods and materials as those used by the ancient shipwrights. The replica will be sailed across the Mediterranean Sea under a single square sail, making use of authentic means of navigation.

Linder and Kahanov both reject the popular claim that their ship is the worlds oldest. Far older ships have been recovered in dry land excavations in Egypt and China, and traces of older ships have been found in the Mediterranean Sea. But they are satisfied that their ship is unique in its combination of completeness, age, and the intensity with which it has been studied. However, it doesn’t prevent their hoping that chance, aided by their knowledge of the subject, will throw a yet older and more perfect discovery their way.