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A world authority on nautical archaeology

Obituaries / J. Richard Steffy, 1924 - 2007

December 09, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

J. Richard Steffy, a self-taught expert on ancient shipbuilding who helped revolutionize the field of underwater archaeology and earned a reputation as "the Sherlock Holmes of ancient ship reconstructors," has died. He was 83.

Steffy, a professor emeritus of nautical archaeology at Texas A&M University and a board member of the affiliated Institute of Nautical Archaeology, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder Nov. 29 in a nursing home in Bryan, Texas, said his son Loren.

"He was really considered the world authority on the subject of ancient ship reconstruction," said George Bass, a professor emeritus at the university and founder of the institute.

Bass said he has been receiving messages from around the world in response to the death of the man who helped make shipwreck analysis a scholarly discipline.

"He was a pioneer in so many ways," Bass said. "I doubt there ever was a course in the history and theory of wooden-hull construction before the one he taught here."

Steffy was a pioneer of the art of reconstructing entire ships, such as the wreck of a 2,300-year-old Greek ship found off Kyrenia, Cyprus.

In the early 1970s, Steffy and a team of archaeologists reconstructed the ship from thousands of fragments of wood -- an endeavor chronicled in the National Geographic in 1974.

"He reassembled the entire hull," Bass said. "All these thousands of pieces were fastened together with stainless steel rods. The hull is still on display in Kyrenia.

"Since then, guided largely by him, the Greeks built a full-scale replica and sailed it to Cyprus," he said. "It went through a gale and handled beautifully. In fact, we learned so much about how Greek ships handled from what he did."

Until then, Bass said, "no one had ever tried to reassemble an ancient hull, and now it's commonplace. For example, one of Dick's students went to Turkey and spent several years putting a thousand-year-old hull back together using his techniques."

Over the years, Bass said, shipwreck archaeologists "from Israel to Italy to the United States to Canada" called on Steffy for his advice, "and he went to those places, or people came down to sort of sit at his feet to learn."

They included archaeologist Shelley Wachsmann, who was working on the excavation of an ancient fishing boat found in the Sea of Galilee in 1986.

"He called on Steffy right away as the premier expert in the world to come and give advice," said Bass.

Wachsmann told the Houston Chronicle in 1992 that Steffy "almost gets into the mind of the builder. He reads wood like you read a newspaper."

That ability is why Paul Johnston, curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, called Steffy "the Sherlock Holmes of ancient ship reconstructors."

"He had the patience to take all those tiny little clues left behind -- the crushed wooden splinters, the corroded fasteners and the tool marks left by the ancient carpenters -- and rebuild the ship into its original shape on paper or in a museum gallery for everyone to enjoy and learn from," Johnston said.

"He was the pioneer, and he taught a couple of generations of young ship reconstructors how to do it, so his legacy will be carried on forever," Johnston said.

Born May 1, 1924, in Lancaster, Pa., John Richard Steffy grew up in the nearby town of Denver. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he studied pre-engineering at Lancaster Area College and electrotechnology at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

He then went to work with his father and brother in the family's electrical contracting business in Denver, Pa.

Bass' first encounter with Steffy came in 1963, when Steffy wrote to him about an article Bass had written in the National Geographic about a shipwreck in Turkey, a 1,406-year-old Byzantine merchant ship.

Steffy offered to build a six-foot model of the 60-foot ship.

"He pointed out from the beginning that he wasn't building something pretty to put on the mantelpiece," recalled Bass. "He was building a research model to understand the construction techniques of the ship."

Bass soon met Steffy and began inviting him to the university to deliver graduate seminar lectures on ancient seafaring.

After making his first visit to Cyprus in 1971 to look at the ancient Greek ship that nautical archaeologist Michael Katzev had excavated, Steffy told Bass he was going to quit his family's business and become a full-time professional ship reconstructor.

Bass thought he was crazy.

"It's just there was no such profession," he said. "I thought, 'Who is going to hire him?' It turned out I did, and then Texas A&M did. He gambled big, and it paid off huge."

In 1972, Steffy and his family moved to Cyprus, where he worked on the reconstruction of the ancient Greek ship.

Bass, who founded the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in 1973 and moved to Cyprus the same year to work with Katzev and Steffy, hired Steffy as the Cyprus-headquartered institute's ship reconstructor in 1974.

In 1976, the institute moved onto the campus of Texas A&M, which created a graduate program in nautical archaeology. Bass and Steffy became the first two members of the faculty, which now numbers seven.

Bass said Steffy's 1994 book, "Wooden Ship Building and the Interpretation of Shipwrecks," is considered the major work of its kind on the subject.

Indeed, Bass marvels at the accomplishments of Steffy, a man who never earned a bachelor's degree but became a full professor and was named a 1985 MacArthur Fellow.

"He became an outstanding professor," said Bass. "He lectured around the world to great acclaim. His students adored him. And he published things that were better written than a lot of things written by people who had doctorates.

"He was a genius."

Steffy's wife of 39 years, Lucille, died in 1991. In addition to his son Loren, he is survived by his son David; a sister, Muriel Steffy Lipp; a brother, Milton; and seven grandchildren.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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