Health & Science

KUHF Conversations: Loren Steffy

In the history of archaeology, the ability to excavate underwater is relatively new. One pioneer was Dick Steffy, who was the first person to reconstruct an ancient ship from the wreckage of rotted, water-logged timbers. He eventually became a professor at Texas A&M and was also the father of Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy. KUHF Health and Science reporter Carrie Feibel sat down with Steffy to discuss the new book he’s written about his father's life.

Feibel: “The book is called The Man Who Thought Like a Ship. It’s the story of your father, Dick Steffy, who in the second half of his life became the world’s leading expert in reconstructing shipwrecks. But before that he was an electrician who never finished college, living inland in Pennsylvania. What drove him to make such a great leap?”

Steffy: “You know it’s an interesting question, because even my father didn’t know why he was so fascinated with ships. But when I talked to my aunt, she said when they were children they would gather around the feet of their father as he sat in a chair and he had a picture of the ship that he served on in World War I. And they would ask him to tell stories about what it was like. And she said my father always seemed very captivated.”

Feibel: “And he became a hobbyist building models literally in the basement.”

Steffy: “Absolutely, yeah. It was kind of a way for him to relax. He was working a pretty physical job and he’d come home at night and he enjoyed working on models and they just became increasingly more intricate as he went along.”

Feibel: “The reconstruction that launched his career was the Kyrenia, a shipwreck off Cyprus that dates to 300 BC. It was a merchant’s sail boat, 47 feet long, and when it sank it was carrying wine, almonds and millstones. What did the world learn from your father’s work rebuilding that wreck?”

Steffy: “They learned a lot about how ancient ships were built. This was in the early 1970s that he began this project and we really didn’t know much about how the ancient Greeks built ships. We didn’t know much about ancient Greek ships at all because there was only a few pictures of them on pottery and things like that. So what he was able to show was that ancients, as far back as 300 BC, were building ships with what’s called a “shell first” construction, which means they built the hull and then they put the frames in. As opposed to the way we do it today, which is sort of the reverse.”

Feibel: “Why did we change the way we do it?”

Steffy: “It’s very labor intensive to build it shell first. You use these interlocking mortise-and-tenon joints, which are basically pieces of wood that slip into grooves on the sides of planks and holds them together. It makes the hull very strong, but it’s very labor intensive to carve out all those little grooves and all those little pegs and to put everything together. And so as it became more expensive to build ships, the more economical thing was to build the frames first and bend the planks around them.”

Feibel: “But how did this boat do as a boat? Was it a primitive boat?”

Steffy: “Well, it was primitive by our standards obviously. It actually, you know, the Kyrenia ship sailed for perhaps as many as 80 years. It was really a very old lady of the sea by the time she sank. She’d been through a number of modifications and repairs, so obviously she held up pretty well.”

Feibel: “And this also becomes the story of the development of the field of nautical archaeology. Why did nautical archaeology have to struggle, as you wrote in the book, to be recognized as a legitimate part of archaeology?”

Steffy: “I think that happens anytime you have sort of a new scientific discipline emerging. I mean, archaeology had been done on land for many, many years. And a gentleman named George Bass tried to adapt those same principles to underwater archeology. But at the time that all this was happening, basically shipwrecks were left to salvagers and treasure hunters. There wasn’t any scientific study of ships or shipwrecks. Really, my dad got involved with George Bass’s second project, and so there really hadn’t been many excavations at that point. And as they began to do more and document more and develop the science around it, obviously that changed.”

Feibel: “It’s just so funny because sailing and ships were so important to the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans, I mean it’s a little ironic that it was poo-pooed.”

Steffy: “It took people a while I think to understand what could be learned from. But my dad always said that ships represented one of the earliest everyday technologies. It’s not a stretch to say they were sort of the Internet of their time. I mean it was the way societies stayed connected to each other. They can tell you a lot about how societies traded with one another, what their abilities were in terms of travel, and also how things were made, how goods and services were passed around from one group to another.”

Feibel: “And he was 47 when he did this change.”

Steffy: “He was 47 when it all started.”

Feibel: “Wow. Well, wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it with us.”


If you are a fan, more Loren Steffy.


Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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