Fruits of the Sea
The Ma‘agan Mikhael Ship: The Recovery of a 2,400-Year-Old Merchantman
With reporting by Suzanne F. Singer and Judith Sudilovsky
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.
Thus began a 16-year saga. The underwater survey and recovery operation was first reported at length in BAR in 1992 by project director Linder. Now, more 048than ten years later, the project has produced two major offerings for the public: the ship itself, finally rebuilt and on display at the Ma‘agan Mikhael Ship Museum at Haifa University (there is also a plan one day to build a working replica), and this remarkable book, which contains articles by 22 contributors. Specialists in a wide variety of fields will find in this volume a wealth of detailed information of value to their own research; the rest of us gain both insight into ancient maritime life and a real taste for what top-notch archaeologists do for a living.
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.
The book relates both the story of how the archaeologists worked at the underwater site and what researchers in various fields were subsequently able to learn from what had been found. The first part of the book discusses the technical problems involved in having to work in shallow water and the problems created by wave action. Every step from discovery to recovery, preservation and display is documented and explained. It is a fascinating tale.
Soon after the boat’s accidental discovery, Linder assembled a team that included Jay Rosloff of Texas A & M 049University and Haifa graduate students Eve Black, who edited this volume, and Yaacov Kahanov, who later became the director of the preservation effort and the ship museum’s principle curator. After first conducting probing surveys to learn the extent of the wreck, they began an arduous excavation effort that would take two full years. The problem was that the vessel, which lay 230 feet from the shoreline, was in a zone subject to breaking waves and surges. The motions in the water made it hard for divers to do their work and increased the likelihood of damage to the ship. The constant movement also insured that excavated portions of the site would refill with sand after a few hours.
At first the team hoped to avoid these problems by building a breakwater and a cofferdam (a watertight structure erected around the wreck from which the water could be pumped), creating a dry environment in which they could easily excavate the ship. Because of the difficulty in constructing a breakwater adequate to protect the site and uncertainty about the effects of exposing the wreck to the open air, Linder’s team opted for working underwater. They could not, however, simply vacuum up the sand lying atop the ship, for they would most likely suck up artifacts as well and damage them. Instead, they devised a method that was as effective as it was tedious. They dug trenches around portions of the site with bottoms that were lower than the wreck itself. Sand simply flowed off the wreck toward the trenches.
Once the excavators began their work they quickly realized that the wealth of collectable materials within the craft was too great for them to recover in one season. Instead, they devised a method of using trenches to expose only selected “window panes,” while other portions were covered with sandbags. Within each pane they tagged, measured and photographed everything. Then they removed the artifacts, including ballast stones and a large cargo of rocks (presumably used for construction purposes) onto underwater sleds. Vehicles parked on the shore pulled the sleds out of the water. Once the boat’s hull was exposed, the team disassembled it—often using saws—as best they could. These pieces were sent ashore on sleds made of plastic poultry racks, and then stored in tanks of water. The entire process took two years.
Once the ship’s parts were recovered, preservation and reconstruction could begin. Many of the timbers 050were 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. 051Although 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!”
Part II of the book examines the location of the site in both historical and geological contexts; Part III, which will probably be of greatest interests to non-specialists, examines the ship itself, its architecture, its sea-worthiness, its possible origins and nearly everything the find tells us about the art of shipbuilding in 400 B.C. Did you know, for example, that shipwrights reinforced their construction by sewing planks together? Much of the stitching in the Ma‘agan Mikhael boat has held up, and numerous photographs and diagrams in this volume explain how the craft was skillfully sewn, nailed, pegged and otherwise joined together. The two articles by Yaacov Kahanov, one of which is co-authored by Henry Winters, unravel and explain every aspect of the ship’s construction and place it in the context of shipbuilding in ancient times. They thankfully include a glossary of terms for those of us who don’t know the difference between a whale and a wale.
The book next examines three of the objects found in and around the boat. Two geologists describe the 12.5 tons of rock that the ship carried as both ballast and cargo and attempt—inconclusively—to figure out where the ship was made and where it had traveled before it sank. Their inability confirms Elisha Linder’s argument earlier in the book that the ship, rather than belonging to any specific “nationality,” represents a generalized eastern Mediterranean maritime technology and culture. A second article on the boat’s cargo assesses the many ceramic vessels that went down with the ship, including bowls, oil lamps, jugs and amphoras. It concludes that most, if not all, of the wares were from southern Cyprus. A third article discusses the woodworking tools and related implements that were found in a basket in the ship’s hull. They include chisels, drills, mallets and various measuring tools.
The last section of the book is strictly for the specialists: five articles present laboratory analyses of the pollen found on the boat, the plant material used to lash the boat together, the vessel’s ropes and, of course, its wood.
This publication is an achievement worthy of the painstaking archaeological work behind it. It is clearly written and lavishes the reader with pictures, diagrams, drawings, charts and several glossaries. There is more than enough substance here for the most expert readers, but enough helpful material to fascinate lay readers and enthusiasts as well.
With reporting by Suzanne F. Singer and Judith Sudilovsky