Fire Fishing Near Galilee (ca. 7th C AD)

By: The Scribe on Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Late Byzantine image showing fire fishing with a basket and net.

Fishing gear found in a shipwreck from the 7th century AD, off the coast of Dor in Israel – a location west of Galilee – suggests that fishermen in this area tended to work the night shift… and did so far more often than anyone had previously believed.

Among other things, the shipwreck yielded something called a ‘fire basket’, which is the first evidence in the ancient eastern Mediterranean for a practice known as fire fishing. Although several ancient images and writings had suggested that people in this area practiced fire fishing, there had previously been no evidence for its actual use.

This iron fire basket was recovered from the shipwreck off Dor’s coast in Israel. Fisherman would have used these to hold fire above the water, which would actually attract fish to the surface.

Fire baskets were mounted onto the end of fishing boats by being placed on the end of giant lantern-like devices, which kept the fire suspended overtop the water. The light from the fire would then attract fish to the boat, and the fishermen would be able to see the fish in the water far more easily than they could without a fire illuminating the surface.

The fishermen would then be able to easily spear the fish or other creatures that swam near the boat, or they could throw their nets into a spot in the water where the most fish congregated. In fact, this practice may date back to around 400 BC, when the ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote about a similar practice that involved striking at fish from above the water.

A five-pronged fishing spear from the 7th century shipwreck off the coast of Dor, Israel, just west of Galilee.

This evidence, combined with some pieces of ancient art and Plato’s writings, suggest that fire fishing was very important in the ancient Mediterranean, and was likely practiced throughout New Testament times and well into the Byzantine era.

Other finds from the 7th C shipwreck included: an iron five-pronged fishing spear; a pile of rectangular, lead fishing net sinkers that would have been used to weight down nets; a bronze weight in the shape of a woman; and a tubular, iron “sounding lead”. The sounding lead was perhaps the most intriguing of the additional finds, since these were actually metal bobs used to measure water depth.

This sounding lead would be filled with tallow, attached to a line, and thrown over the side of the boat. The line length and debris stuck to the tallow would indicate water depth, which could be a key navigational tool, especially at night or during bad weather conditions.

What the ancient fishermen would have done with the sounding lead was: fill the hollow middle of the lead with tallow, attach the lead bob to a sounding line, and then throw the line and lead over the side of their boat. The length of the line, combined with the amount of debris stuck to the tallow, would then indicate a depth measurement to the fishermen. This information could then be used to return to a specific fishing ground – particularly at night or during low visibility, when a sounding lead functioned as a vital navigational aid.

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Tomorrow: 3500 year old baby!


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