Ancient Greek sailors would feel right at home
Athens — A nearly exact replica of the kind of Greek merchant vessel that supported the armies of Alexander the Great is to be put into the water near Athens this June. The original boat, known as the ``Kyrenia ship,'' was discovered off the coast of Cyprus in 1967 by a team of archaeologists from the United States. Although many ancient shipwrecks had previously been found in the Mediterranean, the Kyrenia ship was far better preserved than any other. Approximately 70 percent of its hull and its entire cargo were virtually intact.
Michael L. Katsev, leader of the team that discovered the Kyrenia ship, and his wife, Susan, moved to Cyprus and, with a team of experts from 12 nations, spent the next seven years docu-menting, photographing, and preserving the find. The reassembled hull and its cargo now sit in a museum in the port town of Kyrenia, in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus.
``It is an amazingly well-preserved ship,'' Mr. Katsev says, ``. . . a representative example of a late-classical, early-Hellenistic ship.''
The team gathered invaluable information about the methods of construction used by the ancient Greeks as well as details of the lives of ancient seamen, of the types and amount of cargo the ship could carry, and of the techniques of repair. Katsev calls Kyrenia-type ships ``the backbone of ancient Greek trade and civilization.''
The Kyrenia II will be an almost exact replica of the 47-foot square-rigger that was found buried in sand 30 feet below the surface of the sea. The ship, sunk during an attack by pirates, carried up to 30 tons of cargo, including 404 amphorae filled with wine and oil, 29 millstones that served as ballast, and sacks of almonds. The discovery of four pitchers, four wooden spoons, four oil jugs, four casseroles, and other items indicates the ship had a crew of four. Other recovered items indicate the crew ate fish, olives, grapes, and figs.
Construction of the Kyrenia II began in 1982 as a joint venture of the Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Tradition and the American Institute for Nautical Archaeology, of which Katsev is a vice-president. The approximately $100,000 needed for the project has been raised from the Greek and Cypriot governments, some large private gifts, and small donations.
The necessary information to build the Kyrenia II was for the most part provided by Katsev and Prof. Richard Steffy of Texas A&M University, who spent 15 years documenting, sketching, photographing, and making plans for each piece of timber, every single element discovered with the ancient wreck. Katsev says that ancient literature and art helped ``to identify the origin of the cargo, to date the ship.'' But he adds, ``There is virtually nothing about this kind of ship from ancient literature or pottery. There are several descriptions of later ships, mostly luxury barges.''
The pine-and-oak replica will duplicate the ancient wreck -- down to mistakes in its construction. Since only part of the mast and pieces of the sail and rigging were found, final specifications for them will be determined during sea trials this summer.
The planks on the ancient ship varied in size, and one side had 5 percent more wetted surface, indicating it had been built from memory, without using plans. The original ship had steering oars instead of a rudder and, Katsev says, ``at least two, maybe four oars for maneuvering in port.''
Construction of the Kyrenia II is being supervised by Katsev and the shipwright and naval architect Manolis Psaros, at a shipyard near Athens. The team of four working on the boat is following the ``shell-first'' method of shipbuilding, which died out in the 11th century. This means the planks have been built up first, and the frames added later.
No nails are being used to hold the planking in place. Instead, the planks are joined by 4,000 tenons and 8,000 hand-chiseled mortises, held together by 8,000 wooden pegs. ``The ancient method we are duplicating is familiar to any furnituremaker,'' says Harry Tzalas, president of the Hellenic Institute. The frames are secured to the planking with spikes of pure copper, hand-made using originals found in the Kyrenia ship as examples.
No evidence was found that the Kyrenia ship was caulked, leading Katsev to believe the hull was submerged after construction to allow the wood to expand. If this method does not work, a mixture of resin and wax known to have been used on other ancient ships will be employed.
The June launching will be followed by sea trials in the Saronic Gulf. Assuming all goes well, a cargo of amphorae, almonds, and millstones and a crew of four will sail the Kyrenia II across the Aegean the following summer, stopping at such islands as Samos, Nisiros, Rhodes, and Cyprus -- known to have been part of the Kyrenia ship's last voyage.
Tzalas hopes Greek fishermen can be found to sail the boat. But as he points out, ``The wooden boats of the Mediterranean are powered by motor today, and we may not find seamen sufficiently familiar with sailing.''
After five years of sailing and research, the ship will be hauled and repairs made, including all repairs and alterations made on the original vessel.
``We will seek to duplicate the approximately 50-year lifetime of the Kyrenia ship to the extent that we can, down to the last detail,'' Katsev says.
``Sailing it will give us knowledge of the backbone of the ancient Greek economy. We have already learned about and can better appreciate the skill of the ancients,'' maintains Katsev, ``in design, method, workmanship.''