Ships are unique. A ship is a microcosm of political, economic, cultural and technological activity. Why do we deem the discovery of a ship so significant? It serves as a bridge between different cultures and peoples carrying goods, ideas and technologies. As the sea is a bridge between cultures, so is the ship the means of carrying and diffusing that culture. Comprehending the technological achievements embodied in the building of a ship, its navigation, its method of propulsion, its loading capacity and its constant confrontation with the elements is a major task. Until very recently, the structure of ancient ships was a subject relying on literary descriptions and artistic iconographic representations. However, with the progress of nautical archaeology research, we can now handle a ship's hull itself, enabling us to begin to understand the magnitude of the achievements of the ancients.

Such was the case with the Ma'agan Mikhael Ship - a fortuitous discovery accompanied by a dramatic touch of coincidence. The ship was found off the shore of Kibbutz Ma'agan Mikhael, a settlement situated approximately 30 km south of Haifa on the Israeli coastline, where three decades earlier, maritime archaeology in Israel was initiated.

Oddly enough, this stretch of sandy sea bottom had not shown any signs of significant archaeological relics, even though the sea along this stretch of coast had served as the training ground for naval divers who joined the Archaeological Undersea Exploration Society of Israel and therefore spent many hours underwater while practicing search and survey techniques for archaeology. In August of 1985, a member of the Kibbutz, Ami Eshel, was returning late one afternoon from a dive along the coast. Some 70 meters offshore, at a depth of less than 1.5 meters of water, he came across a pile of large stones.

He spotted pottery sherds and several pieces of wood protruding from the sand. The stones were not typical of the region and the pottery appeared ancient. In addition, it became immediately clear that the 'finger' of wood protruding from the sand reached much farther down than he could uncover with his bare hands. Thus it occurred to him that he may have stumbled upon much more.

Following customary procedures, he notified a representative of the Israel Antiquities Authority of his finds, and went to find Dr. Elisha Linder, the maritime historian/archaeologist who lives on the kibbutz. Linder realized that the find was an intact, 2,400-year-old wooden-hulled merchantman, originally 13.5 meters in length and 4 meters in width, in a remarkable state of preservation. It was lying perpendicular to the shore where it had, for reasons still unknown, been beached.

The excavation process took place over three seasons, from 1988 to 1989. It was carried out by a team of nautical archaeologists and technical staff from the Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa, who were joined by specialists and advisors from Israel and abroad. Jay Rosloff from the U.S.A served as the field director.

A substantial portion of the wooden hull structure survived. Among the artifacts found aboard were 70 items of ceramic ware, ropes, a lead ingot, a set of wooden carpenter's tools, 12 tons of rocks, mainly blue schist and Gabro, and - lying in position in the sandy bottom, although it had not actually been used - a perfectly intact, one-armed wooden anchor, unique in its style, its ropes still attached.

News in Progress of the Reassembly

Where planks had become distorted, they have been reshaped. Each piece of planking, after being submerged for a night in PEG at 60°C to render it flexible, was eased into the original shape and held in place using battens and clamps. This jigsaw puzzle was made easier by the original labeling (stainless steel needles and Dymo tape), which survived the years of the conservation process and all the handling to which the parts were subjected.

The remaining pieces will be put in place when an overhead gantry is installed to allow the assembly team to work inside the hull while being suspended from above.


Building a Replica of the Ma'agan Mikhael Ancient Ship

In order to advance the study of shipping in antiquity and to extend our knowledge of the Ma'agan Mikhael Ship, the plan is to build a replica of this ship. It will be built by an identical method of "shell-first construction," with similar materials to those utilized by the ancient shipwright. The intention is to sail this replica across the Mediterranean Sea, making use of ancient navigation means and methods. Similar replication ventures of historical ships have been undertaken in other seafaring countries: our Greek colleagues constructed a full-scale replica of the 4th century BCE merchantship discovered and excavated near Kyrenia, Cyprus. The Danes built replicas of Viking ships at the Maritime Archaeological Museum and Research Center in Roskilde, Denmark.

Students and scientists of various maritime study disciplines, from Israel and from different countries bordering the Mediterranean shores, will board the Ma'agan Mikhael Ship replica along its sailing route. Thus, this ancient new ship will also serve as an ambassador of goodwill and peace and enhance collaboration with neighboring countries. With the establishment of a laboratory workshop for students studying maritime archaeology, a truly unique opportunity has been created: namely, that both students and researchers can be totally involved in the building of a replica of the Ma'agan Mikhael Ancient Ship. The workshop will impart to the students the academic/technical/mechanical skills required for investigating methods in this field and presenting physical replicas and academic reports.


Photos: Itamar Grinberg