Trireme Olympias: the final report—sea trials 1992–4, conference papers 1998 edited by Boris Rankov (ed.) with 19 Contributors 243 pp., 91 b&w figs and drawings, many tables, colour cover Oxbow Books, 10 Hythe Bridge Street, Oxford, OX1 2EW UK, or David Brown Book Company, PO Box 511, Oakville, CT 06779, USA, 2012, £60/$120 (hbk), ISBN 978-1842174340
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 215–217, March 2013
How to Cite
Murray, W. M. (2013), Trireme Olympias: the final report—sea trials 1992–4, conference papers 1998 edited by Boris Rankov (ed.) with 19 Contributors 243 pp., 91 b&w figs and drawings, many tables, colour cover Oxbow Books, 10 Hythe Bridge Street, Oxford, OX1 2EW UK, or David Brown Book Company, PO Box 511, Oakville, CT 06779, USA, 2012, £60/$120 (hbk), ISBN 978-1842174340. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 215–217. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_5
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
The Trireme ‘hypothesis’ Olympias, designed by J. S. Morrison and J. F. Coates and built by the Greek government, has spawned a large literature that has focused on the ship's design, its construction process, and its operational experience in a series of sea trials conducted in 1987, 1988, 1990, 1992, and 1994. This volume represents the last report on the sea trials and serves as an excellent conclusion to the entire project (for previous reports, see the bibliography on pp. 8–9). The book is nicely produced, thoughtfully organized, and largely free of typographical errors, presenting papers of high quality and interest. While most of the chapters stem from papers prepared for a conference held at Oxford and Henley-on-Thames in September 1998, it is clear that, during the long lag between presentation and publication, many authors revised their papers in order to react to others in the collection, and even attempted to include references to important literature published after 1998.
Unfortunately, the scope of this review prohibits me from summarizing everything I found important or interesting in the 31 chapters of this volume, as each paper contained many points worth mentioning. Fortunately, this job has been done for the reader by the volume's editor Boris Rankov, who has summarized each chapter in a brief and incredibly useful introduction (pp. 1–9). Although I have consulted individual papers from other sea trials volumes many times over the years, I confess that I have never read an entire volume from start to finish. Like others, I gained an overview from the last chapter of the 2nd edition of Morrison, Coates and Rankov, The Athenian Trireme (Cambridge: CUP, 2000: pp. 231–75). Faced with this review, I obviously read the book from cover to cover, and I must say that I benefited tremendously from doing so. In fact, I recommend a ‘complete read’ to others as the best way to see the staggering amount of useful knowledge created by the Olympias project. Still, I suspect that most readers will approach this volume as I originally approached the others, dipping in and out of subjects that most interest them. I was therefore pleased to find the insertion of numerous internal cross-references that help the reader see how single chapters interact and respond to points made by other authors in the collection.
Overall, the final volume is comprised of five separate parts, which worked best when read in sequential order. Part 1 (4 chs) described the 1992 and 1994 sea trials as well as other excursions—notably a trip to England in 1993 and a brief voyage, after a major refitting, to carry the torch at the Olympics in 2004. In this part, the reader gained a sense of the oarsmen's routine from a minute-by-minute log presented from one particular voyage segment (p. 16), and from a description of intimate details such as problems in keeping an oarstrap tight (pp. 26–29), or effects on oarsmen in seats that were slightly out of tune (pp. 30–31), or, techniques used for replacing a damaged oar while rowing (pp. 29–30). The reader also sees the trial experience from different viewpoints reflecting various sectors of the oar-crew (pp. 32–36) and learns how Olympias functioned when its oar-crew was only two-thirds its full strength (pp. 50–57). In all, this first part revealed the high degree of collaboration among the participants and underscored the fact that ‘an interdisciplinary, integrated design effort is essential for any future reconstruction’ (P. Lipke and F. Weiskittel, p. 39).
Part 2 (5 chs) discussed proposals for a revised design based on the ship's performance under oar and under sail. Much of this section is quite technical, for instance T. Shaw's theoretical discussions of the effects of wind and waves on a ship like Olympias (pp. 63–75) and how this would impact her ability to match a voyage attested by Xenophon (Anab. 6.4.2) from Byzantium to Heraclea ‘in a [very] long day under oar’. It also included details of the oar-system (T. Shaw and J. F. Coates), which might be improved by slightly increasing the length of the cubit on which the ‘room’ (horizontal distance from thole to thole on the same level) is based, and by canting the seats outboard at an 18.4 degree angle. This modification would enable the oarsmen to reach their full potential by lengthening their stroke (pp. 76–91).
Part 3 (6 chs) included critiques of Olympias, both pro and con. Of the six chapters in this section, four were supportive (R. Burlet, E. Gifford, S. McGrail, A. J. Papalas) and two were critical (A. W. Sleeswyk and A. Tilley). Both the editor and Trireme Trust showed their maturity by including these last two critical chapters. Sleeswyk was disappointed that the trials did not examine (even in simulation) the most important aspect of trireme warfare—ramming attacks—and the effects of deceleration on both the attacker and the attacked. Among his list of deficiencies, he suggested the correct hull shape would resemble the flaring U-shaped cross-section of Renaissance galleys, and argued that a 4th-century trireme would need to be heavier than Olympias to be useful in ramming warfare. The most vocal of the project's critics was A. Tilley, whose paper ‘An Unauthentic Reconstruction’ (pp. 121–32) argued that just about everything is wrong with Olympias. Much of Tilley's argument is repeated more fully in his book Seafaring on the Ancient Mediterranean, BAR International Series S1268 (2004), reviewed by this author in IJNA 35.1 (2006) 156–57.
Part 4 (7 chs) deals with various kinds of evidence for the operation and performance of ancient triremes. J. F. Coates takes up Tilley's observation that Olympias is too heavy to be easily beached and describes ways in which this might have been accomplished both on campaign and in the context of shipsheds. He concludes (p. 140) that ‘beaching a trireme is no light operation and that it is unlikely that triremes were any heavier than Olympias’. The reader who has just finished Part 3 will remember Sleeswyk's pronouncement that a 4th-century trireme must be heavier than Olympias to be militarily viable (p. 119) and Tilley's that it must be lighter to fit other evidence that we have (pp. 123–24). Perceptive readers are thus reminded that Olympias and her performance raise many questions that cannot yet be answered definitively—from design to construction to deployment to maintenance—topics that are all treated in this volume. Other papers in Part 4 discuss Olympias' performance under sail (D. Lindsay), triereis under oar and sail (I. Whitehead), and the human mechanical engine and ways to manage it for periods of long-duration trireme-rowing (J. F. Coates, H. Rossiter and B. Whipp). Two superb papers from this section are by B. Rankov (pp. 145–51) and H. Wallinga (pp. 152–54). Rankov minutely dissects an ancient fleet voyage from Brindisi to Corfu in 168 BC and demonstrates how a proper reconstruction must take into account contemporary conceptions of time, wind speed, wind direction, and changing currents as well as boat speed (the fleet surely included ‘fives’). The result is fascinating and produces a broad range of average speeds through the water ranging from 5.25 to 8.75 knots depending on the variables chosen (pp. 149–50). Wallinga's chapter casts doubt on the reliability of Xenophon's evidence (presented in Anabasis 6.4.2) for calculating the sustained cruising speed of a trireme. This throws into question the 7–8 knot value calculated by Shaw (pp. 64–67) as a useful benchmark for ancient trireme performance under oar and reminds us (no matter who we choose to believe) that ancient testimonia must always be read in the context of the works from which they are lifted.
Part 5 (5 chs) presented a number of fascinating aspects of ancient trireme construction and maintenance. R. Bockius' paper (pp. 170–81) on the multiplicity of ‘room’ lengths attested in ancient wreck evidence was masterful. It served to remind us that Vitruvius' 2-cubit unit should not be interpreted as providing an exact value on which to base a revised model of Olympias. P. Lipke has two papers in this section: one on the characteristics of wood and how tenon crushing and plank slippage contributed to the hog that developed in Olympias: the other, on the difficulties in protecting a wooden ship from shipworm (Teredinidae) and the quick, catastrophic results of an infestation. This second paper made me wonder how ‘fives’ and larger polyremes (seemingly too heavy to be regularly beached and dried out) lasted more than a single season. In another paper, A. W. Sleeswyk observed that the cordone and contracordone (structural reinforcements applied to Genoese galleys c. AD 1600) ought to guide our understanding of how hypozomata or ‘undergirds’ functioned. His proposed method for fitting an ancient hypozoma is well thought out and convincing. To my mind it explains a curious term in the Athenian inventory lists that has bothered me for years. ΔIAZYΞ (IG II2 1629, 2) may well refer to the fact that a rigged hypozoma ran through the side of the hull (dia in Greek) into its tightening mechanism as Sleeswyk describes.
The final section, Part 6 (3 chs), discusses some interesting research conducted after the original 1998 conference. R. Oldfeld (‘Collision Damage in Triremes’) concluded that trireme hulls were so lightly constructed that damage could occur when the attacker's speed was just half a knot faster than the attacked (perhaps partly answering Sleeswyk's objection that Olympias was not built heavily enough). Although his collision diagrams (figs. 29.6–29.16) needed more explanation to be easily understandable, he demonstrated that a high degree of skill was required for successful attacks when the speed differentials by the pursued and pursuing ships were less than a knot. B. Rankov detected a ‘foot’ or unit of measure (= 0.308 m) in the preserved remains of the Zea harbour shipsheds and concluded that this unit had a direct relationship to the ships destined for the sheds, important for any future reconstruction attempt. The final chapter by A. Taylor modelled battle manoeuvres for small squadrons (five or ten vessels) of fast triremes. In a series of effective diagrams, he demonstrated the complexity of various attacks and the resulting responses to them from a defensive fleet. This paper goes a long way toward demonstrating the possibility of Morrison's diekplous definition as a fleet manoeuvre (see Morrison and Coates, Greek and Roman Oared Warships, pp. 360–63; the manoeuvre can also be used by single ships) and suggested a plausible way to model other tactical manoeuvres.
I can say with enthusiasm that this volume offers much food for thought. As for its shortcomings, I can think of only two. Due to the diverse nature of the topics, the volume cries out for a comprehensive bibliography combining the useful bibliographies appearing at the end of each chapter. The reader would also benefit greatly from an index, since overlapping issues are discussed in many chapters. Despite these minor desiderata, Trireme Olympias: the final report serves as an excellent concluding volume to the previous reports on the sea trials. Considering the large number of papers included, the disparate topics, and the time lag between the papers' initial composition and final publication, the volume is surprisingly unified. As a result, the reader comes away with a feeling of admiration for those involved with the entire project and the thoughtfulness with which the participants (and editor) grappled with various problems as they tried to maximize the information produced by the trials. As such, the volume stands as a brilliant end to a brilliant project and points the way toward future research. For those deeply interested in the trireme Olympias, it is a ‘must-have book’, despite its hefty price tag.