JERUSALEM – A boat that plied the coast of the Holy Land 1,300 years ago carrying fish, carobs and olives is helping researchers better understand a little-known period in the region's history.
The boat, discovered in a coastal lagoon near the northern city of Haifa, dates from the early 8th century, not long after the rise of Islam and the Arab conquest of the Middle East.
Marine archaeologists studying the craft say it is the only one from this period discovered in the Mediterranean, and could help scholars understand how the arrival of new rulers from the Arabian desert changed life and trading patterns in the Holy Land.
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The boat, the archaeologists think, sailed up and down the coast with a crew of four or five, fishing and stopping to trade at ports along the way. On one of its journeys, it went down in shallow water for reasons unknown.
This 45-foot-long craft was first discovered by researchers from Haifa University's Institute for Maritime Studies and Texas A&M University 10 years ago, in a lagoon home to some 25 other sunken craft dating as far back as 2,000 years ago. They only released their findings now, following the latest excavation season.
Much of the still-submerged ship is uniquely intact, with the stump of a mast still visible. On board, the archaeologists found 30 clay pots originating in Egypt and containing the remains of fish. They also found ropes, a wooden spoon and well-preserved 1,300-year-old olives and carobs.
Yaacov Kahanov, the Haifa University scholar leading the excavation, said the find was important both because of the boat's rare state of preservation and because the craft dates from a period about which historians know little.
Kahanov said the find also showed there was a settlement, previously unknown, in the early Arab period on the beach near where the boat was found.
"The sailors brought the boat into the lagoon deliberately, to meet someone, to sell or buy, meaning there was some kind of port nearby," Kahanov said.
More important, the boat could help to paint a picture of economic life in the Holy Land under Arab rule. Hailing from the desert, the new rulers had no seagoing tradition, and scholars are divided on whether trading patterns that existed before they arrived were preserved afterwards.
According to Joseph Drori, an expert on the Islamic period at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, the boat could offer an indication that sea trade continued uninterrupted.
"If the age of the boat is right, then this is a very important find," Drori said.
When the boat went down in the lagoon, the Holy Land was an administrative backwater ruled from Damascus by the caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty, who had just built the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
The Muslim population was still small, and most people were Christian and Jewish in religion and Hellenistic in culture. The sailors were unlikely to have been Arabs, Drori said.
"The Arabs came with no knowledge of the sea, and drafted craftsmen, sailors and shipbuilders from the local population," Drori said.