The Trireme Trust - Newsletter 19

Newsletter mailed out to Trireme Trust members during November 2000 (went to press before news of the death of J S Morrison)



The last year has been one of consolidation for the Trust's work, especially in the light of the disappointing news that Olympias is not likely to go to sea again. This does not mean that our work is at an end and that there is no more for us to do. It is vital that the results and conclusions of the work done on Olympias are fully and finally published. To this end, Boris Rankov spent much of last year completing the revision (with a whole new chapter on the sea-trials) of John Coates' and John Morrison's The Athenian Trireme. This was published by Cambridge University Press in July and has already received excellent reviews in BBC History magazine (below) and the Sunday Telegraph. His next task will be to put together the final report of the trials to be published alongside the papers of the 1998 Henley/Oxford conference. This will include the suggested modifications to the Olympias design to be incorporated into any further ship, including Timothy Shaw's proposal for a canted oar-rig. The modified design by John Coates which incorporates this suggestion will also be the basis for further work on the later quinqueremes and larger polyremes of the Hellenistic and Roman period. The intention is for the Trust to host another conference on the Henley/Oxford model to discuss these ships and their designs, to be held as soon as the 1998 conference volume is published.

The Trust also hopes to co-operate in further research with the National Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde in Denmark. The Museum acts as a centre for the preservation, reconstruction and trialling of a series of Viking ships found in the fjord at Roskilde. Their research encompasses computer reconstruction techniques which may be of value in the Trust's work. On the other side, their reconstructed vessels have so far represented smaller Viking ships which have been sailed more than rowed. The reconstruction currently being built, however, is of Skuldelev 2-4, a 60-oared ship more than 30 metres long and 4.5 metres across, which approaches the size of Olympias. The Museum is therefore interested in the Trust's expertise in conducting sea-trials under oar on this scale. Boris Rankov visited Roskilde in May of this year to describe the Olympias project at the Museum's Research Centre and to discuss future collaboration with the Centre's director, Professor Ole Crumlin-Pedersen. It is hoped that this will lead to further practical and theoretical research over several years on oared ships of all types.

Historical & Technical

John Coates writes:

Olympias has been examined for her condition and is not seaworthy. It seems that some of her new planking is diseased and her timbers generally are very dry after having been out in the open for some time. It seems at present unlikely that she will be used for further research into rowing and sailing in the foreseeable future. She has been moved recently about 100 metres and is now in a shallow concrete 'dock' (but not connected with the sea) and the merchant ship reconstruction Kyrenia II is nearby, all near the preserved Hellenic Navy heavy cruiser Averoff at Old Phaleron near Piraeus. We understand that it is still the intention of the Greek authorities to put Olympias into a reconstruction of an ancient Piraeus shipshed when the projected new Hellenic Maritime Museum is built near the Averoff.

The Trust is proposing to hold a second conference in a few years' time on the subject of polyremes on which there are many questions to be resolved (Half sections of some types are reproduced in the invaluable book Greek and Roman Oared Warships by John Morrison). I have also been continuing investigations into the practicalities of the Piraeus ship sheds and their slipways and have found myself in discussions with archaeologists expert in ancient Greek architecture generally over such matters as the design of the roofs and the possibility that the pillars of the sheds themselves could have safely supported the ships to prevent them from falling over sideways when being moved on the slipways. That has seemed a rather iconoclastic suggestion to the architectural experts, but I hope to persuade them of the particular needs of the sheds and their slipways. I also look forward to hearing results of very recent excavations of shed foundations and slipways in Munichia, the smaller of the two circular harbours of Piraeus.

Many Friends will know that the second edition of The Athenian Trireme was published in July. The first edition, published while Olympias was still being built, was reprinted twice and after selling 7,000 copies had been out of print for some time in spite of a continuing demand for it. The new edition includes photographs of the actual ship in place of many of the prospective line drawings of the ship in the first edition. The main addition however is a well-written account by Boris Rankov of the sea trials of Olympias with an assessment of what has been achieved with the ship on trial, making the project a unique piece of operational archaeological replication in the field of oared ships. This addition including the changes now proposed to the oarsystem is particularly valuable as it is by an expert oarsman and classical scholar who was in charge of the oarcrews during sea trials. The second edition of this book can therefore be recommended to all who wish to understand the many aspects of the trireme project.

Photographs of Olympias continue to be used by publishers of books worldwide, and there is a steady sale of the plans of Olympias to modelmakers and researchers.

BBC History Magazine Review of The Athenian Trireme, 2nd ed

In May 2000, in the first edition of the BBC History Magazine, Professor Peter Jones wrote:

... In 1986, a year before launch, the history of the trireme and the evidence underpinning its...reconstruction was explained in Morrison and Coates' The Athenian Trireme. A revised edition ... reads like the best sort of detective story.

Because triremes did not sink when rammed (the opposition towed them off for re-use), no trireme has been, or probably ever will be, found. As a result, historical texts and artistic depictions provide the main evidence, backed up by whatever archaeology can offer. Perhaps the single most crucial piece of evidence came from the ship-sheds at Zea, which yielded the trireme's maximum dimensions. How was the hull constructed ? Sunken merchant vessels gave the key. What speed did the trireme average ? The soldier-historian Xenophon talks of a `long day's row' covering 140 miles. But how long is a `long day' ? ...

In June 1987 the Olympias was launched, a ship of the Hellenic Navy ... Six summers of trials followed, and in 1993, in celebration of the 2,500th birthday of democracy in Athens in 508 BC, the trireme was shipped to London and raced up and down the Thames past the Houses of Parliament. And the exciting news is that the results of those trials are now published.

In the second edition of The Athenian Trireme, Boris Rankov ... - the Olympias' rowing-master during the trials - has produced a thrilling account of the outcome. A few examples: it became clear that each vertical group of three oars, one above the other, and separated in the water by less that 30 cm., had to work and communicate together as a unit, the top in charge. The reason is that the top oar could see everything, but the two oars beneath him rowed virtually blind...

Keeping all the oars in time turned out to be a major problem: commands could not be heard through a noisy, wooden, body-laden boat. A shrill pipe turned out to be a reasonable compromise (ancient texts refer to these), but the best results of all were obtained when the whole crew hummed a tune (no evidence for this, alas). Pachelbel's Canon was used during their most successful row - astonishingly at night. Imagine: a trireme skimming over the wine-dark Aegean as the fiery sun sinks below the horizon, its oars in perfect harmony, the crew humming ...

The trials were conducted year on year with amateur, ever-fluctuating crews. That has had its effect on the results. Nevertheless, it is clear that changes do need to be made to the design of Olympias to bring her up to scratch - most of all enlarging the interscalmium, which would increase speed by 10 per cent. Further, ancient historians will now understand the importance of light oars, of a cushion to sit on, of protection against the sun, of good ventilation and water-supply and, more than anything, intelligent man-management of the crew (especially in the face of boredom and exhaustion). But it is a testimony to the authenticity of Olympias and a resounding justification of the whole magnificent enterprise that, despite such comparatively inexperienced crews, results so close to the ancient norms have already been achieved. Come in, Olympias, your time is up. Son of Olympias ? Alexander?

Grateful acknowledgement to the Editor of the BBC History Magazine for permission to reproduce the above.

Andrew Ruddle adds -

The mention of Pachelbel's Canon in the article prompted a question in the Brain of Britain 2000 series on BBC Radio 4 recently. Which reminds me that the video of the famous Inspector Morse episode Greeks Bearing Gifts has recently become available on general distribution.

The Trust Website

The Trust Website is still receiving more than 1,000 hits a month; continuing thanks to Anu Dudhia for his time, energy and skill in keeping it fresh and informative. The address is still:

The Vaka Taumako Project

Regular readers will recall the background to this venture; the re-creation of the tepuke canoe and the preservation of the associated building techniques on the Duff Islands in the Pacific. Progress has been somewhat disrupted over the last few months, thanks to a combination of contrary winds preventing return of the vessel from Nifiloli (Reef Islands) and a number of civil disturbances on neighbouring island groups. However, the waiting time has been spent on rebuilding and re-lashing those parts of the canoe that suffered in the 1999 cyclone, and it is now housed under shelter until the next sailing season - with luck, next January or February. Strenuous efforts are being made to secure funding for the formal documentation of building and navigation methods, vessel and crew performance factors, coupled with investigation of the plant materials involved. Meph Wyeth, veteran of many trireme sea trials, has been involved in an assortment of publicity ventures, including radio and speaking appearances in Hawaii and the North-Western USA, and dissemination of newsletters. The Project has a most colourful website :

Greeks March On

Andi Pavlou writes:

Let me tell you a story about a girl who met a man who talked her into something rather fun - Perhaps I'd better not, but anyway 12 months later here I am surrounded by bone china, earthenware, fleece, t-shirts and thousands of Christmas cards and postcards! This year I will also be surrounded by some silver-plated key rings with either Rowing Goddess or Rowing champ on. Some posters and well - I don't want to ruin the surprises! This year's catalogue contains the old and the new. We are very pleased that the web site has been up and running for some time and all the new products will appear shortly - watch that virtual space and bookmark it! and click on the trireme. In the Olympic year where even the Australians struggle to differentiate between the Parthenon and the Coliseum - why not buy one of our many books, which will inform, educate and eradicate all worries about being ultimately ignorant. And please remember the Trireme Trust is for life, not just for Christmas!

Letter from Athens

Rosie Randolph writes:

People often ask what I miss about England. For family and friends there is always the telephone. So I miss the animals, a good motorway network, Radio 4 and primroses in Spring. And being able to walk on the pavements unimpeded, and cross the road knowing you're not going to have to run for it. One of the great gains of life in Greece is a constant sense of celebration and enjoyment.

For the Millennium the centre of Athens was pedestrianised, and the whole city seemed to take to the streets. In theory you could choose which concert you wanted to listen to by way of accompaniment to the fireworks - in practice the streets were so jammed you went where you could. The lighting was pink and blue, and the fireworks were magnificent. Later we walked past Syntagma, where thousands of helium-filled balloons were released followed by further fireworks which cut a swathe through them.

Athens' next celebration was the inauguration of the new Underground system. For the first weekend it was free, and jam-packed as everyone came in from the suburbs. The stations have been decorated with marble, and in Syntagma there is a fine museum display of artefacts found during the excavations. There is also a fascinating large-scale exhibition of excavation finds The City beneath the City at the Goulandris Museum, which gives a wonderful overview of the city at various periods; I hope it will become a permanent exhibition. There are bound to be further finds as the tube system is further extended.

Our next excitement was Carnival, which lasts for a month before Clean Monday, the start of Lent. Most of the celebrations take place at the weekends; bands of people come in from all over Greece - primeval-looking troupes from Thessaly dressed in goatskin masks and shaggy black sheepskins, clanking enormous brass bells on their backsides. Lots of children dressed-up, and most adults sporting at least a jester's hat with bells. Clean Monday is normally celebrated by taking a picnic out into the countryside with friends, and flying a kite, many of which sport the colours of football teams. Although the idea is to use up food before the fast, it is both a fast and a feast - in other words no meat, but elaborate fish and vegetable dishes.

Easter in Greece is a much bigger festival than Christmas, and almost everyone goes back to their villages. On the Friday night the various churches progress with epitaphos by candlelight into the port area, where a hymn is sung and the various epitaphoi are judged for their beauty, intricacy and skill. On Spetses, boys of about 10-14 amuse themselves by buying pellets of dynamite. Spetses has a strong tradition of independence, and I doubt that the recent banning of dynamite pellets will make the slightest difference. Easter week is a bit like being under fire, and when the priest announces the Resurrection there is a massive explosion as an old fishing boat packed with dynamite goes up. This has replaced the more dangerous older tradition which was arranged randomly, causing serious maiming. Aristoteli remembers his father, who was a surgeon, having to arrange for the transport and care of someone who had lost a hand.

After the Easter Mass, everyone returns home to have a delicious soup made from lemon, eggs, herbs and sheep's intestines, and on Easter Day people are up early to start cooking the lamb on the spit. Kokoretsi - in which intestines are stuffed with offal and wound like a rope around the lamb - is another delicacy. Easter is also the unofficial start of the swimming season. Some people bathe all year round, and the sea holds its temperature well through October and November. Our last bathe had been on 14 December, and we stopped for lack of late afternoon light rather than the cold. Easter was so late this year that the first bathe was bracing but pleasurable ... a month earlier and I might not have been so keen !

The election were held on 9 April. I would say that Greeks as a nation are more politically interested than the British. Generous television and newspaper coverage is the norm, and issues are constantly discussed. The main parties have information tents in Klathmonos Square, and have big rallies - one in the football stadium, for instance, which causes traffic chaos. People tend to be registered to vote in their villages; there is a two-day national holiday to enable them to return, and the parties lay on buses to the main towns . It is difficult to assess the relationship between Church and State. One of the recent issues has been the opposition of Archbishop Christodoulos to Simitis acquiescing to Brussels' demand to omit the declaration of Christian denomination from the ID card (this apparently dated from 1948, to help flush out Communists in the Civil War). Christodoulos, a charismatic figure, persuaded the faithful to pour into Athens for a demonstration that was said to number 800,000. Politically, this gesture does not seem to have had any impact, though we are aware of a wave of neo-Byzantinism - this takes the form of media coverage, the building of new churches and monasteries and, dare I say, the over-restoration of old ones.

We have had a wonderful year - lots of photographic expeditions into the Peloponnese, Zagora Horia and Thessaly. I would say the climate is changing; very little rain in the winter, and there was snow on the mountains. People build snowmen on the bonnets of their cars and try to bring them home complete. The summer has been hot - usually a fortnight in the mid-thirties, escalating to the mid-forties for a few days until dispersed by winds. There have been many fires. We have enjoyed the operas and concerts at the Megaron, and at the more informal Lyriki. The Greeks sing like larks - and generous subsidies make opera and theatre widely accessible. In the summer we migrated to the Irodion and open-air cinemas, and were lucky enough to be asked to Epidavros for Aristophanes' Ploutos. So while you sit in England under leaden skies and rain, remember there is a world of sun and laughter a mere three and a half hours away .....

The Great River Race

The Trireme Rowing Club retains its Great River Race prize (again). Cameron Stokes writes

On the same day as Messrs. Redgrave, Pinsent, Foster and Cracknell rowed into Olympic history, the Trireme RC competed - somewhat inspired - in the Great River Race; as regulars will know this is a 22-mile processional race on the Thames Tideway from Richmond to Greenwich.

Our training and preparation had been intense and varied, including an `adventure row' up the Conwy River from the castle up into the mountains, wading here and there, pulling the boats `African Queen'-style over sand and gravel banks, then dragging them up through rapids, higher and higher until we could go no further. We never did find the promised pub ! ... then we rowed back against the incoming tide.

Two weeks later on the Thames, we were amongst 257 boats competing for the various GRR trophies. We started 149, and at full rolling-start speed did what Triremers do best - rammed into a Thames skiff, of which there were many milling aimlessly around obscuring the Start. With a few choice expletives we escaped from Salamis, and started again. After a mile or so we overtook the other Trireme RC boat, whose crew - at the Start - must have thought their luck was in! We settled down to 34 strokes a minute, with emphasis on the leg drive at the catch, which sounds anomalous for fixed-seat rowing but really does work. So much so that we left all the other Pembroke Longboats behind and, significantly, pulled well ahead of the pack of new, longer, supposedly faster Celtic Longboats. The Race programme had mentioned a `needle match' between these two boat types ... what a challenge! After 18 miles Tower Bridge marked the last push, against a vicious head wind. We finished exhausted but happy that we'd won the Pembroke Longboat Thames Challenge Trophy for the third consecutive year. Our other boat finished second in the Pembroke class, having been passed by only one Celtic Longboat.

What next ? Well, we are planning to enter the next Celtic Challenge in 2001, which is a 60-mile race across the Irish Sea from Arklow to Aberystwyth, if we can get a suitable support vessel. Any offers?

The Editorial Section

If the newsletter has gone to the wrong address, if you would like more background on any topic, if you have any ideas for future articles, please feel free to contact Andrew Ruddle - Editor and Trust Treasurer - (+44) (0) 1932-220401 or via the website.