The Man Who Thought Like a Ship (Ed Rachal Foundation Nautical Archaeology Series) edited by Steffy Loren C. 196 pp, 56 b&w photographsTexas A&M University Press, 4354 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843-4354, USA, 2012, $35/£29.95 (hbk), ISBN 978-1603446648
Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2013 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 241–242, March 2013
How to Cite
Martin, C. (2013), The Man Who Thought Like a Ship (Ed Rachal Foundation Nautical Archaeology Series) edited by Steffy Loren C. 196 pp, 56 b&w photographsTexas A&M University Press, 4354 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843-4354, USA, 2012, $35/£29.95 (hbk), ISBN 978-1603446648. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 241–242. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_25
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
This is a delightful and important book. No nautical archaeologist worth his or her salt will be unaware of the late Professor J. Richard Steffy's ground-breaking work at Texas A&M University's Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), and many have been inspired and guided by his wholly original approach to recording, analysing and reconstructing ancient ships from their often fragmentary wrecked remains. But he was a private and very modest person, and while his scholarly achievements are manifest in his research, teaching, and publications, and by the honours he has won (most notably the prestigious MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ award which supported his later work), throughout his life Dick the man was known only to a small circle of close colleagues and family. Few are therefore in a position to write a personal biography, and of those few his younger son, now a distinguished journalist, is uniquely well-qualified. Loren Steffy has produced a gripping and very human story of endeavour, setbacks, and achievement, and in the process has made an important contribution to the history of our discipline.
He had rich sources on which to draw. His mother Lucille had filed Dick's early papers with rigorous efficiency, while INA's archives were similarly comprehensive and complete. But it was from within his close-knit family that the most telling insights come. With his elder brother David he had accompanied his mother and father to Cyprus in 1972, where Dick was to begin an association with the Kyrenia ship reconstruction project which would continue for the rest of his life. Although George Bass has already chronicled the early history of INA and its establishment at Texas A&M, Loren's account sheds new light on the uncertainty of those early days, and the enormous risks and leaps of faith that were taken by George, Dick, Fred van Doorninck and Michael Katzev in establishing the discipline and setting up the now internationally renowned centres in Texas and Turkey. Loren saw much of this through the eyes of an impressionable youngster, and later was able to interview many of the key players both as biographer and family friend.
This is the story of a remarkable and largely self-taught man who from childhood was fascinated by how ships were shaped and put together, and who explored the principles involved first through building paper-and-paste models, and later with more elaborate wooden constructions. But this was only a hobby. To earn a living he ran an electrical business in the landlocked town of Denver, Pennsylvania, and the need to support a growing family left scant time for nautical interests. How his momentous change of direction came about has been described by George Bass, but Loren adds fascinating detail from a family perspective. This insider view seen by a boy as he grows to manhood follows Dick's subsequent rise to academic prominence, culminating in his promotion to a full professorship at Texas A&M, a remarkable achievement for someone without formal academic qualifications, and of great credit to a university astute enough to recognize a pioneer of outstanding ability and brave enough to buck academic convention by appointing him.
As a biography the book will appeal to a wide readership, because Dick's story is unusual, interesting, heart-warming and inspiring, and Loren tells it with panache and good humour. But there is a deeper message for nautical archaeologists. Until Dick's first tentative contact with George Bass in 1963 the discipline's early practitioners, headed by Bass himself, had not fully appreciated the potential of the usually fragmentary hull timbers that often lay flattened beneath the mounds of amphoras or other cargo which characterized many wrecks. True, these remains were meticulously plotted, recovered, conserved and recorded, and general conclusions drawn from them about the dimensions and constructional make-up of the original ship. But no one had seriously thought that such analyses could lead to reliable three-dimensional reconstructions, far less that a collapsed and disintegrated hull might one day be put together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Dick believed passionately that these things were possible, and that establishing through practical experiment a methodology with which to achieve them was nautical archaeology's key challenge.
The Cyprus days of the early 1970s were crucial to the development of what has since become known as the ‘Steffy Method’ for the study of ship remains. Dick had already been associated with Bass in the application of modelling techniques to the interpretation of the Byzantine wreck at Yassıada but the discovery of the 4th-century-BC Greek wreck off Kyrenia, and its excavation by Michael and Susan Katsev, provided an opportunity for a full-scale reconstruction of the real thing. Though crushed and partly dislocated by the ship's cargo of amphoras and grindstones, about three quarters of the original hull remained. Moreover the timbers had been carefully recorded in situ by the Katsevs and their team, recovered in sequence, and conserved in a large cellar below Kyrenia Castle. The ship-remains, the archaeological database, and the facilities were in place. All that was needed now was someone like Dick. Susan Katsev has made a fundamental contribution to this section of the book and has provided most of the on-site photos.
The triumphant outcome of the Kyrenia reconstruction is archaeological history, but the detailed story of how it was achieved is told here for the first time. The reader is left in awe by the sheer tenacity, skill, patience, intuition and self-criticism with which Dick reconstructed the fragments, sometimes undoing many weeks' work because a later stage revealed an earlier error of a few millimetres. It was during this process, Loren reveals, that Dick began to ‘talk’ to the ship—or, more accurately, to its builder, who he came to know as ‘Aristides’: no one ever knew of Dick's long-standing relationship with a 2,200-year-old Greek shipwright until Loren discovered a reference in his father's notes. In tool-marks cut into the timbers' surfaces Dick was able to recognize the signatures of two craftsmen, one capable and sure-handed, the master-shipwright Aristides himself; the other cautious and less skilled—doubtless his co-worker and apprentice. On occasions it is evident that each craftsman had worked on the same part of the structure at opposite sides of the ship; on others, it appears that a botched job by the apprentice had been taken over and rectified by the master.
The conversations with Aristides were not flights of fancy, only his name was imaginary. Re-assembling timbers first put together more than two millennia earlier, and recognizing the significance of the builder's final tool-strokes on a component, is a very intimate form of dialogue. From it flows an ever-increasing understanding of the builder's intentions and methods, and ultimately of his thought-processes and philosophy. Aristides, like Steffy, turned out to be a perfectionist, and it is good to know that the two became friends.
The Steffy Method is based on an understanding of traditional techniques of wooden shipbuilding, and seeks to interpret vessels on their own terms rather than impose modern theoretical constructs upon them. Proportional ‘rightness’, curves defined by eye and the properties of wood are the guiding principles. By recognizing and adopting the original builder's mind-set a reconstructor seeks to understand not only the form but also the philosophy behind what he is seeking to replicate. For this reason Steffy eschewed the use of computer-based programs in hull reconstruction, though he had become increasingly aware of the value of computing for storing and managing the raw data on which reconstructions are based. As well as the restored original of the Kyrenia ship, two subsequent replicas have been built and sailed.
The Kyrenia ship dominates the book, as it did Dick Steffy's life. But Loren touches on other key projects, including the Athlit ram, the boats at Herculaneum and Kinneret (Israel), and nearer home the Brown's Ferry boat and Yorktown wrecks. Dick's own book, Wooden Ship Building and the Interpretation of Shipwrecks (College Station, 1994), reviewed in IJNA 23.3 and 31.1, remains a seminal text which will endure, though as he himself emphasizes much work still remains to be done on the vessels he has reconstructed and studied.
Future generations can count on the guidance of a wise and sympathetic mentor as they build on and further refine the Steffy Method, and this richly illustrated biography explains why. Through the ships he has reconstructed they can still talk to Dick—if they have the skill and patience to master his language.