HAIFA — A replica of a 2,500-year-old trading ship found off the coast of Israel was christened in Haifa Friday morning, ahead of its first voyage out of the shelter of the bay later this month.
The keel of the “Ma’agan Michael II,” named after the kibbutz where its ancient forerunner was found in 1985, was laid in July 2014 as part of a joint project by the University of Haifa’s Department of Maritime Civilizations and the Israel Antiquities Authority.
On Friday morning, the university and IAA poured a libation of wine to Poseidon and cast off for a quick jaunt around the bay. Later this month, however, the ship will make its maiden voyage down the coast to Herzliya, a three-day sail.
The archaeologists involved in the project seek to learn how ancient mariners sailed against the winds and currents with the technology existing at the time, a quandary that historians still don’t understand despite vast evidence that Mediterranean seafaring existed for centuries before the Ma’agan Michael ship sank.
When the first Ma’agan Michael ship sailed in the 5th century BCE, the Land of Israel was ruled by the Persian Empire, the regional superpower. It was during the period when the ship sailed that the Greek city-states defeated the Persians at Marathon and Salamis, Athens reached the peak of its glory at the head of the Delian League, and the Parthenon was erected.
Archaeologists from the University of Haifa dug out the remains of the ancient vessel over the course of three seasons in 1988 and 1989. The ship, a standard sort of cargo vessel at the time, was around 37-feet long and 13-feet wide and was believed to hail from Greece. The well-preserved bottom of the ancient craft was dug out from the sediment that preserved its wooden beams. Ballast from the ship’s hold were determined to be from the Greek island of Euboaea, while other stones were from southern Cyprus. The hull was crafted of Aleppo pine and some other parts of oak.
Since 1999, the preserved remains of the ancient ship have been on display at Haifa’s Hecht Museum.
The remains’ unique preservation allowed researchers to study the way it was built, and a carpenter’s toolbox found in the hold gave them the chance to reproduce it.
“It’s a story that closes the circle of 30 years of research,” Haifa University archaeologist Deborah Cvikel told The Times of Israel in advance of the official launch. The purpose of the project was twofold, she said. Using traditional tools, the team of archaeologists and volunteers sought by trial and error to figure out how ships were constructed 2,500 years ago. “Even today, after we finished building it, we’re not certain we built it with the same methods they used then,” she conceded.
Cvikel took over the project after the death of its initiator, Yaacov Kahanov. Kahanov died in December 2016, just before the replica first took to the water for trial runs.
“It’s hard to admire it when you see the ship completed and it looks like a prop from a movie,” Avner Hillman, an IAA archaeologist co-heading the project, said at Friday’s ceremony. “But if you go into the belly of this ship and understand that inside it there are close to 10,000 bolts, and tens of thousands of nails, and those are among the dynamics we had no idea how to do two years ago.”
The second aim of the project remains to determine how they sailed a square-sailed ship in the Mediterranean in the 5th century BCE.
“There are more than a few theoretical debates, but we don’t have proof or testimony,” Cvikel said. “How would you sail from here to Cyprus? It’s against the wind.”
“We have no idea how they did it,” she said.
Cvikel said she was also partnering with researchers at Cornell University to try to better date the ship by using a technique called dendrochronology, which studies the wood’s tree rings, to lock in a more accurate age.
Hillman’s doctoral thesis at the University of Haifa focuses on the ancient woodworking methods employed in building the ship.
“It’s very difficult” to sail, even with some experienced nautical hands, Hillman said after the Ma’agan Michael was towed out of the fisherman’s harbor at the head of Haifa Bay. After just eight trial runs, they’re still learning the ropes. Literally.
Once the Ma’agan Michael’s crew gains enough experience, they will try to sail to Cyprus, but that project is still on the horizon.