NORMAN — Unsure what would be found buried in the seabed of the Sea of Galilee, Shelley Wachsmann and his excavation team, raced to uncover the past.
Wachsmann discussed the famous excavation of the Sea of Galilee boat in a lecture Wednesday night at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History.
In 1986, the rising Sea of Galilee, possible storms and scientific logistics (how to keep an ancient boat from crumbling in excavator hands) all threatened this 2,000-year-old discovery.
Wachsmann earned three degrees in near Eastern archaeology from the Hebrew University. He served as the inspector of underwater antiquities from 1976 to 1989.
In 1990, Wachsmann became Meadows visiting assistant professor of Biblical archeology in the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University.
Near the ancient site of Migdal, Wachsmann and his team unearthed the Sea of Galilee boat after a drought had left some of the seabed exposed.
Wachsmann said his team did an initial probe excavation to get a better idea of how old the boat was. He said the shell-based construction told them it was a very old ship, possibly from Jesus’ time.
“Because of the rumors circulating that there was gold on the ship, we had to excavate immediately even though we weren’t prepared. It was like a meatball operation from ‘M.A.S.H.,’ the TV show — a meatball excavation,” Wachsmann said.
With the Sea of Galilee rising, the excavation team had to have a dike built around it.
“By the end of the excavation, we were surrounded by water on three sides,” Wachsmann said.
Another problem the team faced while excavating the boat was keeping it wet at all times. Wachsmann said the cellular structure of the wood was no longer wood and didn’t have the strength to support its own weight.
“We couldn’t stand on the wood, so we lowered a hanging platform so we could excavate the inside of the boat by lying down on our stomachs,” Wachsmann said.
Once the boat was completely unearthed from the seabed, Wachsmann’s team had a new problem: how to move the boat.
Wachsmann said normally the boat would be taken apart and reassembled, but because the nails in the boat were in such good condition due to the freshwater in the Sea of Galilee, taking the boat apart wasn’t possible.
“Taking the boat apart would have destroyed it. So to move this 28-foot-long boat built out of something very similar to wet floral foam, we decided to lay down aluminum foil, then fiberglass frames and a thin sheet of plastic finally covered in polyurethane,” Wachsmann said. “It looked like an oversized cupcake.”
Next, the team had to figure out how to move the boat and found they had three options. The Israel Air Force offered to move it by helicopter, but the excavation team was concerned the vibration would be too hard on the boat.
The second option was to bring in a flat top 18-wheeler, but the team feared the vehicle would get stuck in the muddy area. Finally, the team let the boat sail the sea.
Wachsmann said the polyurethane would float, so for the first time in thousands of years, the boat sailed the Sea of Galilee to a conservation pool at the Yigal Alon Museum.
“Once the boat was at the museum, we realized we hadn’t thought about how to get the polyurethane off the boat. This was much harder to do than the original excavation,” he said.
The excavation lasted 11 days and nights, but the conservation of the boat took more than 10 years for it to be able to be displayed in a dry-air environment.
Wachsmann said once the boat was successfully excavated and moved to a secure location, the story really began; one of the most important things an archaeologist can do is determine the age of a find.
Carbon dating, pottery found at the site and the advice of John Richard Steffy, expert on early ship construction, helped determine that the boat dates back to sometime between 100 BC to AD 200.
Since the discovery of the Sea of Galilee boat, public interest has continued, Wachsmann said. His book, “The Sea of Galilee Boat: An Extraordinary 2000 Year Old Discovery,” won the Biblical Archaeology Society’s Award for best popular book published in archaeology in 1995-1996.
Wachsmann said it could not be proven that the boat was of Jesus’ time.
“The boat in artists’ Raphael, Delacroix and Rembrandt’s paintings, like that of ‘The Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ by Rembrandt, don’t have anything in common. No one knew what the boat looked like,” Wachsmann said, adding that the boat’s discovery has shed light on such a mystery and resembles boats mentioned in both the Bible and the works of Flavius Josephus.
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