J. Richard “Dick” Steffy stood inside the limestone hall of the Crusader castle in Cyprus and looked at the wood fragments arrayed before him. They were old beyond belief. For more than two millennia they had remained on the sea floor, eaten by worms and soaking up seawater until they had the consistency of wet cardboard. There were some 6,000 pieces in all, and Steffy’s job was to put them all back together in their original shape like some massive, ancient jigsaw puzzle.
He had volunteered for the job even though he had no qualifications for it. For twenty-five years he’d been an electrician in a small, land-locked town in Pennsylvania. He held no advanced degrees—his understanding of ships was entirely self-taught. Yet he would find himself half a world away from his home town, planning to reassemble a ship that last sailed during the reign of Alexander the Great, and he planned to do it using mathematical formulas and modeling techniques that he’d developed in his basement as a hobby.
The first person ever to reconstruct an ancient ship from its sunken fragments, Steffy said ships spoke to him. Steffy joined a team, including friend and fellow scholar George Bass, that laid a foundation for the field of nautical archaeology. Eventually moving to Texas A&M University, his lack of the usual academic credentials caused him to be initially viewed with skepticism by the university’s administration. However, his impressive record of publications and his skilled teaching eventually led to his being named a full professor. During the next thirty years of study, reconstruction, and modeling of submerged wrecks, Steffy would win a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and would train most of the preeminent scholars in the emerging field of nautical archaeology.
Richard Steffy’s son Loren, an accomplished journalist, has mined family memories, archives at Texas A&M and elsewhere, his father’s papers, and interviews with former colleagues to craft not only a professional biography and adventure story of the highest caliber, but also the first history of a field that continues to harvest important new discoveries from the depths of the world’s oceans.
About the Author
LOREN C. STEFFY is a senior writer for 30 Point Strategies, based in Houston. He is an author, speaker, consultant and former journalist. He is the author of Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit and The Man Who Thought Like a Ship.
For nine years, Steffy was the business columnist for the Houston Chronicle, and his writing has been published in newspapers and other publications nationwide. He has appeared on CNBC, Fox Business, MSNBC, the BBC, and the PBS NewsHour.
Read an Excerpt
The Man Who Thought Like a Ship
By Loren C. Steffy
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2012 Loren C. Steffy
All rights reserved.
The wood, dark as obsidian, is harder than I remember it, and heavier. For more than three decades, it had existed in my memory as a fragile thing, the object of warnings to a young boy to be careful in its presence. It's irreplaceable and old beyond belief—older than the ancient castle walls that surround it, older than Christ—older, perhaps, than Alexander the Great.
In this moment, as I hold a piece of the ancient wood, transformed to a rocklike heft by chemical preservation, the millennia seem less significant than the mere thirty-five years that have passed since I last saw these timbers. It was my father who reassembled them like some massive jigsaw puzzle into the hull of the merchant ship they had been before they spent centuries rotting and forgotten on the sea floor.
Near the battered bow, my children stand alongside the restored planks, touching for the first time a history they've known only through pictures and stories. We all agree we can feel my father's presence here as we stand before his greatest achievement. My mind wanders over the decades like a river flowing backward.
For more than a year in the early 1970s, my father handled these same timbers, positioning them on scaffolding that would hold them in their original shape. Rotted and broken and eaten through by parasites, the wood nevertheless forms a thing of beauty, an elegant arch from shattered bow to broken stern, a vessel transporting knowledge of its ancient world into the future.
I look at the frames, or ribs, spread like strips of licorice across the inside of the hull planking. I remember him squeezing between them, attaching one piece or another. He stood over them on ladders, squinted with one eye as he looked along the length of the keel, and lay suspended above the entire ship on a cradle, placing some of the innermost pieces.
I can see him standing to one side, lost in thought, stepping back from the half-assembled wood as he mulled why a piece didn't seem to line up and made calculations anew as he compensated for some discrepancy. The ship, he would say, talked to him. She would tell him when he'd misplaced a particular piece.
His face was weatherworn, almost craggy by then, and his hands were rough and scarred from half a lifetime spent doing physical labor. His hair was black and slicked back from his face. He was about 6 feet tall, slender and muscular from climbing ladders and working on heavy machinery. It was a physique leftover from an earlier part of his life, a life that by then was changing because of the ancient hull. Even here, in the sweltering Mediterranean heat, he usually wore dress pants. Sometimes, he would talk softly to himself as he tried to decipher the latest problem, yet he never seemed to grow discouraged. It was almost as if he rejoiced in each setback, eager at the chance of unraveling the latest mystery that confronted him. Each problem was telling him something new. The lines on his forehead would furrow ever so slightly, and if you spoke to him then, he probably wouldn't hear you, even if he grunted in acknowledgment.
He wasn't just solving an archaeological puzzle. He was laying the foundation for a new life, a new field of study, a method of unlocking the lessons of history. He lacked any formal training, yet in a harborside castle in northern Cyprus, J. Richard Steffy, known to all his friends as Dick, became the first person to ever reconstruct an ancient ship from its sunken fragments, to take its flattened hull from the sea floor and piece it together in its original form. Today, the darkened timbers stand as a monument to history, a window into the ancient world, but they also stand as the culmination of a dream. For an electrician from a tiny Pennsylvania town, this rotted wood changed everything.
The Kyrenia Ship was the first ship in human history to be built twice. She rests aloft on black iron stanchions, giving her the illusion of sailing on air. During Dick's "reconstruction" process, though, the fragments were supported by a cradle of wooden battens that were really his analytical equations expressed in wood. The whole thing could be adjusted as he corrected his calculations, which was inevitable because he was trying to realign several thousand broken nail shafts and mortise joints.
Before she sank, the ship probably had traded at the Greek islands of Samos, Rhodes, and Nisyros, then headed to Cyprus. A "tramp trader" of her day, the merchantman probably picked up cargo in one port and dropped it off in another, hopping around the eastern Mediterranean on a perpetual voyage of commerce. When she sank, she was hauling wine, millstones, and almonds, whose shells, miraculously, also survived their long, watery sleep. By the time of her final voyage, she was a grizzled old lady of the sea, bearing signs of three major overhauls and many minor repairs.
How she sank remains unclear. The waters about a half-mile from the Kyrenia Harbor are typically smooth sailing, without any reefs or obstructions or a history of severe storms—the most common threats to sailing ships of that era. She may have been attacked by pirates and scuttled to hide the crime. Divers uncovered spearheads under the hull, indicating a possible attack, and they found few coins or other signs of payment that should have been present on a commercial trader. Also on-board was a "curse tablet," a folded piece of lead driven through with a copper spike. It contained no writing, but such tablets were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to bring harm to enemies. Part of the starboard hull was missing, rotted away during the almost twenty-three centuries since the ship sank, perhaps concealing the place where the hull was scuttled. One of the few representations of an ancient Greek merchant ship is a painted cup that depicts a pirate ship approaching the merchantman, seemingly about to ram her starboard bow, the same section missing from the Kyrenia Ship. Small coves to the east of the harbor could have served as hiding places for bandits, who could have swiftly rowed toward the old, cargo-laden ship and overtaken her.
A less dramatic but perhaps more likely theory is simply that the ship's captain overloaded her, perhaps hoping to take on a little more cargo to shore up his profits on that particular trip, and the old vessel, dangerously top-heavy, succumbed to rough seas. She was sailing in autumn, after the almond harvest, when the chance of storms was greater than in the summer. No matter the cause, she sank to the sandy bottom about 90 feet below the surface, where the weight of her cargo and shifting currents pressed many of her hull timbers into the sea floor, sealing them in a protective layer of silt for more than two thousand years.
She was found in 1965, the year I was born, by Andreas Cariolou, a Cypriot sponge diver who also served on the Kyrenia town council. The discovery came by accident. In those days, sponge divers scouring the sea floor for their wares were the primary source for discovering shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. Cariolou, who had a tangle of graying hair, a mustache, and an easy smile, had been diving since he was a boy. He was among the first to use scuba gear on Cyprus, once emerging from the water to startle unsuspecting beach-goers. The day he first found the ship, he was diving about 90 feet down when he noticed the anchor of his boat dragging along the bottom. The winds had picked up on the surface, pulling the anchor loose. As he followed it, desperately trying to save his boat, he swam upon a mound of clay jars piled up like an ancient underwater burial mound. Cariolou knew he'd made a spectacular find. "When I saw that pile of amphorae, the hair stood up on my neck like a hedgehog's."
The choppy waters prevented him from taking note of the location when he returned to the surface. He would spend the next several years trying to find the site again. When he finally did, he took readings to record its location, then notified the Cypriot government, adamant that the site must be preserved and studied. Eventually, Michael and Susan Katzev, pioneers in the fledgling field of nautical archaeology, learned of Cariolou's discovery, and he led them to it.
"She's yours now," Cariolou told them. "Only archaeologists must touch her. I've kept the secret for just such a group as yours, and to assure proper honor to my town. You must not forget that she's part of Kyrenia's history." Michael Katzev quickly decided that whatever discovery his team unearthed would be called the Kyrenia Ship.
With a team of fifty-two people, the Katzevs began an excavation the following year. More than four hundred amphoras, the giant clay jugs that the ancient Greeks used for transporting wine and foods, filled the ship's open hold. They were soon dated to the fourth century B.C., making this the oldest Greek ship found at the time.
As divers removed more of the cargo, they began seeing the wood of the hull remarkably preserved underneath, pressed deep into the sand and mud, which helped preserve it from erosion and shipworms. In all, almost three-fourths of the hull remained. Divers carefully removed the wood in pieces and transported them inside the thick walls of Kyrenia's harbor-side castle. Built by Richard the Lionheart in the late twelfth century as a staging area for his assault on the Holy Land in the Third Crusade, the castle now became home to an astonishing piece of antiquity.
When Dick first saw the fragments, they were beyond anything he'd imagined. An amateur ship modeler and self-taught student of naval architecture, he had boldly suggested to one of the world's first nautical archaeologists that he could build research models based on data gathered from shipwrecks. A mere seven years later, he stood in the castle, the wood arrayed before him, as he prepared to put his home-spun theories to the test. Could this centuries old, waterlogged "Humpty Dumpty" be put back together again?
This was no salvage operation, no treasure-hunting exercise. The Kyrenia Ship's most valuable cargo was knowledge. Few discoveries, Dick believed, could carry as much information about the past as a wrecked ship. "When wooden merchantmen sailed the seven seas, they carried two kinds of cargo—material and intellectual," he explained years later. "The intellectual cargo is information that was stored in the material cargo as well as in the artifacts, ballast, chandlery, hull timbers, and anything else that survived. If a project is properly conducted, the material cargo can never be as valuable as its intellectual counterpart. Even if that material consists of tons of gold objects or fine statuary, its importance can never match that of the knowledge gleaned from a well-researched, well-disseminated shipwreck study. That knowledge grows and spreads over the years, and its dividends can be priceless."
With thousands of hours of scrutiny, Dick began to unlock the ship's mysteries, to loosen her long-buried narrative that offered a glimpse of seafaring in the ancient world. She was 47 feet on the waterline, and 15 feet across the beam, drawing about 4 feet of water.
A square sail, about 26 feet on each side, powered the ship, and her four-man crew steered her with two large oars, one on either side of the stern. Most of the hull was undecked, allowing a large open area for cargo. She was made almost entirely of an eastern Mediterranean pine, and the craftsmanship was exquisite down to the minutest detail. The hull was held together with four thousand oak tenons—resembling short, fat tongue depressors—that slipped into mortises, or deep grooves carved into the edges of the planks. The tenons, in turn, were locked in place by wooden pegs driven through them and the surrounding plank. From these mortise-and-tenon joints, spaced about 12 centimeters, or 5 inches, apart, the hull derived most of its strength. The frames were added later, after most of the planks had been joined, the reverse of the way wooden ships were built in more modern times. Also unlike more recent vessels, the Kyrenia ship's frames didn't extend all the way to the base of the hull to join with the keel.
I run my fingers along the hull planking. It feels waxy from the preservatives, but surprisingly solid. The reassembled hull is a marvel to behold, but the memories flooding back to me are of a work in progress. Until now, I'd seen only pictures of the completed reconstruction.
When I last left Cyprus, the ship was half finished. For much of my stay, the wood was still in various stages of conservation, some baking in the molasses-like goo of preservatives, others still soaking in freshwater tanks. As a seven-year-old boy, I stepped gingerly across boards laid over the freshwater tanks, my arms outstretched as if I were on a balance beam. "Don't fall," I'd tell myself. One slip of the foot and the wood below would be crushed to pulp.
My senses come alive with memories from the past. Once again, I can smell the waxy treatment solution, like an oven that needs cleaning, and feel the heat of the liquid as the wood was lifted from the preservation tanks. The thick, dark solution could burn your fingers then dry quickly like candle wax. I remember standing by the ship's conservator as she scooped up a beaker of the stuff to check its consistency, then allowed me to empty it back into the tank. It poured like old motor oil. Mostly, though, I remember the sense of quiet excitement among the small band of archaeologists as Dick began easing those preserved fragments onto the wooden cradle of battens and scaffolding.
I recall him on a stepladder, standing over the lip of the partially rebuilt hull, using an electric drill to drive stainless steel wires through the ancient timbers to secure them. I can see his head peering through an opening as he placed a stubborn piece. During the course of that year, starting with the keel just as the original shipwright had done centuries earlier, Dick pieced each rotted fragment back into its original position—more than 5 tons of wood—one shard at a time.
I walk alone to the stern and touch the ragged end of the keel, protruding from its pedestal. The keel is the spine of a ship, spanning the lowest point of the hull and steadying it in the water. On the Kyrenia Ship, the keel was also the most stunning timber. It had survived in one solid, flowing piece, stretching 33 feet along the seabed for two thousand three hundred years under the weight of the millstones, iron ingots, and amphoras filled with 20 tons of wine.
For Dick, the keel was the foundation of his reconstruction, the starting point from which all his calculations evolved. As a sort of mathematical keystone, the keel represented a bond between him and the shipwright who almost two dozen centuries earlier had originally carved and set it, using it as the basis for his own calculations from which to build the rest of the hull. Dick spent hours toiling over those lines, trying to understand what the ship was telling him, what the shipwright, reaching across the ages, wanted him to understand. He studied the grain of the wood and the tool marks still visible on each piece, trying to grasp the messages being telegraphed in the ship's timbers. He often spent twenty or thirty nonstop hours determining the shape of a single part of a frame or plank. In those hours, he developed a kinship with the long-dead shipwright whose hands had converted trees into transport. By studying the woodworking marks, he could tell in which hand the craftsman held his tools, whereas changes in the striking angles suggested the height of an apprentice.
The longer he worked on the ship, the better he felt he knew this shipwright, whom he eventually named Aristides—"man of pride." He didn't tell even his closest colleagues about this for fear they might think he was losing his mind, but it helped to put a name to the person he'd felt he'd come to know.
"We spent many long hours in the castle, he and I. Sometimes, we would work right around the clock, with me trying to fathom the reason for fastening two timbers a certain way and he standing somewhere in the shadows of the vaulted stone ceiling, grinning at the ignorance of this modern, supposedly educated man," he wrote years later.
My fingers trace the knobby end of the keel where the stempost, lost millennia ago to rot and shipworms, was torn away, perhaps from the impact of the ship hitting the seabed. If the keel of any ship is special, this one is more so, at least for my father and me. Just as he gave a name to the ancient shipwright, so too did he and I share a name for the keel. I stare down the length of the timber as it stretches before me, like some long black highway connecting the present to the past.
"Hello, Crooked Aleppo," I whisper to myself. I can't help but smile. My father made up that name for a bedtime story he wrote for me during our year in Kyrenia. It was the story of a pine tree that "grew first one way, then the other" in a zigzag fashion. All the other trees made fun of the crooked one, which they said was destined to be cut for firewood. In my father's imaginary world, trees all aspired to be useful, to be made into something beautiful. Crooked Aleppo, the forest laughing stock, is chosen for the keel of the Kyrenia Ship. No tree, of course, could have a greater honor. Later studies have found the wood wasn't aleppo pine, it was pinus brutia, another species native to the eastern Mediterranean. The keel, it turns out, wasn't carved from a crooked tree either. Dick later determined the original shipwright had used a straight timber. It doesn't matter. To me, the keel will always be Crooked Aleppo.
Excerpted from The Man Who Thought Like a Ship by Loren C. Steffy. Copyright © 2012 Loren C. Steffy. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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Table of Contents
A gallery of images follows page 10
Author's Note xi
1 Crooked Aleppo 1
2 Dreams in Paper and Paste 10
3 Short Circuits 22
4 The Ships Begin to Speak 31
5 Pieces of the Puzzle 42
6 'You're Crazy-You'll Starve to Death' 53
7 The Reconstructor 64
8 A Dream in Jeopardy 79
9 Man's Failure as a Thinking Animal 91
10 Zoe's Garage 100
11 Settling into Mecca 107
12 Studies in Mud, Charcoal, and Bronze 117
13 Genius and Despair 130
14 The Laughter of Aristides 138
15 The Voyage Ends 150
Selected Bibliography 183
The Woodlands, Texas