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Sunken Ship May be Ancient Relic of Seafaring Phoenicians

June 8, 1989

KIBBUTZ MAGAN MICHAEL, Israel (AP) _ A sailboat that sank here 2,400 years ago may be the first vessel ever found that was built by the Phoenicians, an ancient people famed for their sophisticated ships and mastery of the sea.

The craft, about the size of a modern racing yacht, sank about 75 yards off this communal agricultural farm in northern Israel, archaeologists said.

Among the items aboard the vessel were a master craftsman’s toolbox with a drill, a carpenter’s square, a heart-shaped jewelry box and a cooking pot still covered with soot, they said.

Jay Rosloff, the project’s field director, told reporters this week it was too soon to establish the vessel’s origin with certainty.

But he added: ″If I had to put money on it, I’d say it was Phoenician.″

″During these times in this area, Phoenicians had a virtual franchise on shipping,″ he said.

He said no Phoenician shipwreck has previously been found.

The Phoenicians were the most famous seafarers of the ancient world and dominated the Mediterranean with their trade. They emerged about 1,000 B.C. and survived until Roman times.

Rosloff said another early boat, a Greek vessel, was discovered off the Turkish-Cypriot port of Kyrenia. Although it was built 150 year later than the sailboat found here, it was not as sophisticated.

The shipwright who built the vessel used iron instead of copper nails common in Greek vessels and employed an elaborate technique called scarfing in which wooden pieces are fitted together.

″This craft has so many quirks that are different (from the Greek vessel) that it indicates a different cultural milieu,″ said Rosloff as he stood on the beach next to an actual-size outline of the hull built with sandbags.

The vessel is 10 yards long, three yards wide and about two yards high from keel to deck. Most of the hull has been preserved, but the masts, sails and cabin have been lost.

The boat was built around 450 B.C. and was in its first season, possibly on its maiden voyage, when it sank, said Elisha Linder, who heads the project run by Haifa University’s Center for Maritime Studies. He said the hull showed little wear.

He speculated that the sailors got too close to shore than was safe because they were hiding from pirates or seeking shelter from a storm. A large chunk is missing from the hull, indicating the boat sank after hitting a rock or reef.

For 2,400 years, the vessel was covered by sand and hidden from view. But in 1985, currents briefly washed away some of the sand, and kibbutz member Avi Eshel caught a glimpse of pottery scraps and ballast stones while diving with his daughter.

Linder had just completed his fifth fruitless summer hunting for Phoenician shipwrecks in Italy when he got word about the find in Magan Michael, where he lives.

″It was like a present,″ said Linder. But he cautioned that more evidence, such as a seal or coins, was needed to conclusively link the vessel to the Phoenicians.

Since the dig began last year, divers have brought up small pieces of the wreck, which is under about two yards of water. On land, the pieces are treated with chemicals, and the parts will eventually be reassembled, Rosloff said.

″Through model work and graphics, we will extrapolate the rest of the boat,″ said Rosloff, a lecturer at Haifa University and originally came from Kendall Park, N.J.

The delicate excavation work is limited to just a few weeks a year because of a heavy surf and strong currents that keep covering the wreck with sand.

Even if the vessel turns out not to be Phoenician, the wreck will reveal many details about ancient seafarers, said Rosloff.

The hull is the oldest and most complete to be discovered and may reveal clues about ancient ship-building techniques.

″The wood that is left is in beautiful condition because the sand covered it so quickly,″ Rosloff said.

″We don’t know how ancient boats were built,″ added Linder. ″We will learn a lot from this.″

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