The Ma‘agan Mikhael ship was discovered off the Mediterranean coast of Israel in 1985. It was excavated for three seasons in 1988 and 1989 by the Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa, with the late E. Linder as the head of the project. A significant portion of the wooden hull of the ship, 11.15 m long, 3.11 m wide and 1.5 m deep, survived. The ship was dated to about 400 BC. Due to the significance of the archaeological find, the hull and its contents were excavated, retrieved from the seabed, conserved and reassembled. The ship and the finds are exhibited in the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa, Israel.
The following parts of the wooden hull survived: the entire keel; the false keel; both endposts; sections of strakes – 12 on the starboard side (including two wales) and 7 on the port side; two knees (one at each end); parts of 14 full-frames, futtocks and top timbers; a central stringer resembling a keelson; the mast step assemblage; fragments of carlings; and four stanchions.
Most of the hull was made of softwood, Pinus brutia. The tenons and their pegs, the false keel and the anchor were made of hardwood, mostly Quercus spp. The hull was built by the shell-first method, meaning that the strakes were connected edge-to-edge by closely spaced mortise-and-tenon joints locked by tapered pegs. There were no traces of caulking material between the planks. After the planking was completed, knees were nailed to the keel and endposts, and the planks were sewn at bow and stern to the keel, knees, and endposts. The pre-assembled frames were then fixed to the planking by double-clenched copper nails. Frames rested on the keel and the knees, but were not connected to them. The hull was coated inside and outside with a mixture of pine resin and esparto wax or beeswax. The evidence indicates that the hull was built in a Greek (Phocaean) shipbuilding tradition.
The original merchant ship, as reconstructed, was 14.4 m long, with a beam of 4.24 m, and 2.6 m depth amidships. She had eighteen strakes, including three wales. Fully loaded with a cargo capacity of 15.9 tons, she displaced 22.9 tons, with a draught of 1.4 m. She was driven by a single square sail. The hydrostatic characteristics of the proposed design were tested by the Israel Administration of Shipping and Ports, and found to comply with present-day requirements for stability and seaworthiness.
Aims of the research project
The aims of this research project are (1) to build a full-scale sailing replica of the Ma‘agan Mikhael ship based on the archaeological finds, using the same species of timber and construction techniques as the ancient shipwrights; and (2) to study aspects of seafaring and seamanship of the period by conducting educational and research voyages in the Mediterranean Sea.
Building a full-scale sailing replica is the final stage in this generation-long enterprise. The replica design was based on the archaeological find. Iconography was used to supplement missing information, and comparisons were made with the reconstructions of contemporary shipwrecks. A complete set of hull lines was generated by computer-aided design and model building. Research models were made to clarify details of the reconstruction.
The construction of the replica is intended to verify the results of the theoretical studies, and provide essential information on ancient shipbuilding techniques. When the ship is launched and sailed, much practical information on the sailing abilities, seagoing characteristics and life on board an ancient ship will be elucidated.
Research objectives and expected significance
The importance of this project lies in the practical construction of an ancient ship. Only by doing this can we learn about the problems and challenges faced by the ancient shipwrights.
Their project (and ours) started with setting the dimensions and form of the hull according to a traditional plan; selecting the species and shapes of trees appropriate for the various components; assembling the keel and endposts; bending, twisting and matching the planks; creating the mortises and tenons; installing strake after strake until the planking was complete; sewing the planking to the endposts, keel and knees at bow and stern, and finally fixing the frames to the planking with copper nails to complete the hull. Decking, mast, rigging and sail, rudder and fittings completed the construction. The ship was then launched, made watertight, fitted out, ballasted, provisioned, manned and made ready for taking on cargo for her first voyage.
This is among the very few projects of its kind which have been implemented. Based on the archaeological data, an attempt is being made to trace lost knowledge—the ancient technology and shipbuilding tradition. However, the construction of the hull is only a part of the project, since the archaeological study will be completed only by sailing, navigating and practical research of the ship’s capabilities at sea.
Another significant aspect is the invaluable experience to be gained by students, pupils and volunteers participating in building the ship. The work team consists of experienced carpenters, students, cadets from the Nautical Officers’ School at Akko (where the workshop is located), Sea Scouts, and volunteers who joined this unique opportunity of gaining first-hand evidence of ancient shipbuilding techniques and seamanship.
Grants and progress
A first sum of £10,000 was granted by the Honor Frost Foundation in June 2015 at the stage where the hull was constructed up to the third strake (Fig. 1). Following six months of progress, the project was granted a further £10,000 in December 2015, when the hull was built up to the 12th strakes and the majority of floor-timbers and futtocks had been installed (Fig 2).
The entire project will cost about £330,000 up to the launching. Another sum of £150,000 is planned for the sailing experiments and maintenance for ten years.