Tuesday, December 04, 2007

 

J. Richard Steffy Is Dead at 83; Made Shipwreck Analysis Scientific

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The New York Times
By Douglas Martin
December 04, 2007



J. Richard Steffy, who made his living as an electrical contractor until he was 48, then cast security aside to pursue his passion, studying shipwrecks, and become a leading a expert in the field, died Thursday in Bryan, Tex. He was 83.

The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, Jennifer Steffy, his daughter-in-law, said.

Mr. Steffy helped make shipwreck analysis a scientific discipline. Beginning at his dining-room table manipulating pieces of wood, he thought of new ways to reconstruct ancient boats and ships in three dimensions. He then added what he learned from historical archives to interpret partly preserved shipwrecks.

His enthusiasm, talent and scholarship would eventually make him a full professor at Texas A&M University, despite never having graduated from college. In 1985, he would win a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. His book, “Wooden Ship Building and the Interpretation of Shipwrecks,” (1994) became a standard in the field.

He pioneered the arcane art of examining wood fragments and myriad lumpish remains of amphora containers, and of reconstructing entire ships and cargoes — sometimes conceptually and sometimes in reality. He reveled in the mission.

“I like to think that shipbuilding was the most important early everyday technology,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1992. “The Greeks and Romans built big and beautiful temples, but I think there’s really nothing like a ship, their ships.”

Mr. Steffy set sail on his personal voyage in 1963, when he wrote a letter to George Bass, an underwater archaeologist, about an article Dr. Bass had written in National Geographic about a shipwreck in Turkey. Mr. Steffy asked if he could build a model to help in the research, specifying that he meant a serious scientific representation, not a model for a mantelpiece.

Soon, Mr. Steffy was delivering an annual lecture to graduate students on ancient seafaring at the University of Pennsylvania, where Dr. Bass taught. He got a grant to go to Cyprus to rebuild a ship from thousands of soggy wooden fragments; it took from 1972 to 1974. Around then, he bid farewell to the family business he had run for 22 years. He had little savings and two teenage sons.

“You’re crazy,” Dr. Bass remembered telling him. “You’ll starve.”

The two men joined with Michael L. Katzev, a noted underwater archaeologist, to form what became the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. Dr. Bass gambled, too, giving up a tenured professorship at Penn for the new endeavor. The institute began in Mr. Steffy’s home in Denver, Pa.

His talent shone early when a woman called to say that a Viking vessel had washed up on a New Jersey beach. The scientists drove over to take a look. Mr. Steffy said that it came from Maine and estimated the date it was built. Newspaper clips proved him exactly right.

The institute moved to Texas A&M in the early 1970s, eventually extending its work to four continents. In addition to working at the institute, Mr. Steffy and Dr. Bass became the university’s first professors of nautical archaeology. There are now seven.

John Richard Steffy was born on May 1, 1924, in Lancaster, Pa. He attended a local community college and Milwaukee School of Engineering, without graduating.

His wife, the former Esther Lucille Koch, died in 1991.

Mr. Steffy is survived by his sons, David, of Great Falls, Va., and Loren, of The Woodlands, Tex.; his sister, Muriel Steffy Lipp, of Alexandria, Va., and his brother, Milton G., of Denver, Pa., and seven grandchildren.

Among the ships Mr. Steffy reconstructed were the Kyrenia, named after the Cypriot port near where it sank; an 11th-century merchant ship wrecked near Turkey; a first-century Roman boat found buried in Italy; and a British vessel scuttled in the York River in Virginia in 1781.

After an ancient wreck dated to about 1025 was found in the Aegean in 1973 with the largest collection of Islamic glass ever found, Mr. Steffy analyzed the waterlogged timbers. He found planks had been nailed to the frame, unlike the earlier method of inserting the frame afterward, Saudi Aramco World said in 1984.

In 1992, nautical remains were found in the Sea of Galilee. The boat was in the style used in the Mediterranean from the second millennium B.C. to the end of the Roman period in A.D. 324.

Dr. Steffy was the obvious choice to interpret what the news media had quickly named “the Jesus boat.” Shelley Wachsmann, an Israeli government archaeologist, explained: “He reads wood like you read a newspaper. He almost gets into the mind of the builder.”

The team watched breathlessly as Mr. Steffy took his first look at the boat, and solemnly declared, “Yup, it’s an old boat.”


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