From: George F Bass
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 9:21 PM
To: ‘Brian O’Connell’
Subject: RE: Bodrum Tirhandil Project
Dear Mr. O’Connell,
It may sound strange, because of my reputation for excavating old shipwrecks, but I am the last person to answer your questions. In the earliest days, half a century ago, I worked with Peter Throckmorton, who knew so much about traditional Mediterranean watercraft that I began to concentrate only on the contents of the vessels, and always left the study of their hulls to others, more expert and more interested than I could ever have been. How I wish that my colleague of many years, Dick Steffy, were still alive, for I know he would have so much to say on the subject (do you know his book Wooden Ship Building and the Interpretation of Shipwrecks?).
I’ll forward your message to a number of colleagues who may be able to respond. If any one of them has anything to say on the subject, I am sure you will hear back.
Alas, a stroke in January means I may not get back to Turkey again, a country I first visited in 1953, and where my wife and I built a house.
Good luck with your project,
Before tackling the practical problems posed by the prototype I hope to find some sort of evidence for the claim that tirhandil descend from a line of ancient boat forms, so I pay a visit to the Institute of Nautical Archeology (INA) run by Texas A&M University in Bodrum. Archeologists associated with the INA have excavated sunken shipwrecks in the region since the late 1950s, when Peter Throckmorton, then writing a magazine article about sponge-divers for whom the tirhandil was a favorite diving platform, was told by a local fisherman of his plan to use dynamite to salvage a sunken pile of copper near one of his sponge-diving grounds. Convincing the man to wait yet another season before continuing with his plans, Throckmorten contacted George Bass, then a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. The following summer, Bass and a ragtag team of archeologists began exploring thYassi Ada wreck – in the first professional underwater use of archeological methods. Beginning with this operation, Bass and a growing team of archeologists developed methods of underwater excavation that not only revolutionized our understanding of the ancient Aegean but also the technologies used in constructing boats as long as 3,ooo years ago. Many of the practical questions that I am trying to avoid by spending a day in the air-conditioned comfort of the library will be answered by these technological discoveries.
Placing a stack of books on the desk, Nurgul, the librarian, admits there is very little here about contemporary shipbuilding – this is after all an archeological institute. Unsure where I may find any connection between ancient boats and boats still being made, she introduces me to John Littlefield. John, a graduate student of nautical archeology, believes the claims I have read about tirhandil may be based on a 1964 article by Throckmorten,but hints that they are likely more about marketing than historical fact. He notes that from a technological perspective nothing particularly new was invented until the last century, when we see an explosion of novelties. His prime example is the claw hammer that has remained relatively unchanged since ancient times. Similarly, he says, there are really only a few shapes a boat can take, and tirhandil look pretty much like any number of ancient boats. Here our discussion turns from form to structure, specifically how boats are built. Asking me to wait a moment, John runs out of the room. He returns with a large section of milled timber.
It had always been assumed that ancient boats were more or less constructed in the same way that contemporary ones are: a series of frames are built that represent the shape of the hull, and then planks are wrapped around these frames, making a watertight barrier that allows the boat to displace enough water to float.
Hull fragments excavated at Yassi Ada and subsequent sites show this assumption to be completely wrong.
Though as little as 10-20% of many of these wrecks’ hulls remain, careful reconstruction and full- and small-scale replicas show that rather than beginning with frames, ancient ships were built longitudinally. Beginning with the keel, strakes* and planks were added along the length of the boat to form a shell (frames only being added later to provide extra stability). Such boats have even been shown to be superiorly watertight due to the precision of the joinery necessary to make them. The distinction between frame-first and shell-first construction is the principle ground for John’s unequivocal opposition to the idea that modern tirhandil are ancient boats. It also suggests a possible solution to my framing problem. Would it be possible to more or less reverse the historical trajectory? If a cement hull were strong enough to support its own weight, couldn’t frames be added later? John is unsure but offers to show me the labs where objects – including hull fragments, tools, fasteners and cargo – are prepared and preserved. I follow him to the basement of the institute.
This apparently iron hammer is not the hammer used by an ancient mariner. Rather, it is a resin cast of the space left in a concretion of calcium around the original iron that has long since disappeared. The color and texture left by the former object produces an uncanny sense that this is more than the end of a very long mold-making experiment. I wonder how this shape differs from the original held 2000 years earlier or that 20 miles away in my tool box.
When recovered from the sea floor concretions are x-rayed.
Resin is injected into the gaps revealed by the x-rays and the positive form is broken out of its calcium mold.
Among the concretions and hull fragments thousands of amphora are recovered from the wrecks. Most often only terra-cotta shards remain. A team of experts pieces together these vessels, filling gaps first with wax, then plaster. It seems impossible that they know what goes where.
I anxiously expect the arrival of the dinghy in Gundogan, to which I hurry home. Along the way, I pass a favorite site: a modernist structure, perhaps a school, built into the hill below the road. A tree grows directly through the flat roof, its trunk rising from the earth two stories below. It is unclear if the building is built around the tree or the tree has simply ignored its attempted architectural subjugation. I like to think the latter. Imitation amphora lie for sale on the side of the road. The dinghy arrives as planned in the back of a pick-up truck.