Muddy shores of Sea of Galilee yield a prized -- and ancient -- catch

A boat floating on its surface may not be the biggest wonder that the Sea of Galilee has ever witnessed, but the recent launching of a 2,000-year-old vessel on this biblical lake can probably qualify as a minor miracle. The 26-foot boat had been dug out of the mud by Israeli archaeologists, who found it almost perfectly preserved and as capable of floating as it was in the first century BC when it first plied these waters.

Initial speculation that the vessel, the first ancient craft ever found in the lake, dated from the time of Jesus created great excitement in Christian circles and within the Israeli tourism industry. The archaeologists dampened this enthusiasm a bit when they decreed, on the basis of pottery found in and around the vessel, that it dated to the first century BC, a century before Jesus' association with the lake, now called Lake Kinneret.

However, Shelly Wachsman, inspector of underwater archaeology for Israel's Department of Antiquities, notes that the boat is probably identical in appearance to the boats Jesus knew: ``Boat construction didn't change very quickly in antiquity,'' he says. ``I think that any future pictorial representation of Jesus around the lake will include this boat.''

One of the world's foremost experts on ancient ships, professor J. Richard Steffy of Texas A & M University, who was invited by the Israeli authorities to join the excavation team, was astonished at the condition of the vessel that emerged from the mud, which kept it from disintegrating. ``It's extremely well preserved,'' he said.

It was this winter's poor rainfall that led to the boat's discovery as the lake's level receded, exposing mud flats rarely seen. Early last month, two brothers from the nearby Ginnosar kibbutz spotted a shallow line of wood projecting upward through the mud. Amateur archaeologists, their practiced eyes distinguished it from driftwood and they notified the Antiquities Department.

Mr. Wachsman, who spends much of his time diving off Israel's Mediterranean coast, was dispatched to the scene. Because of the ship's mortise and tenon construction, he immediately recognized that he was dealing with a boat built no later than the first or second century AD. The discovery of an oil lamp and cooking jar from the first century BC moved back the boat's date of construction, although confirmation is still being awaited.

The vessel looks like an oversized rowboat and probably served as a fishing craft. It appears to have been tied up perpendicular to the shore. During the course of the excavations, planks from two other vessels were discovered nearby, suggesting an ancient anchorage.

As it emerged from the mud, the boat was wrapped in a foam material aimed at keeping it wet. ``If the wood dries out, it will disintegrate,'' explains Wachsman. The vessel was floated along the shore to the nearby kibbutz, where it will be immersed in a chemical solution in a specially built pool for up to seven years before it can safely be exhibited. The process will permit the durable chemical to replace the water which presently constitutes the bulk of the boat's weight and content.

To tourism officials eager to put the boat on display, the archaeologists say: ``You've waited 2,000 years; you can wait a bit longer.''

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