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Goddard Space Flight Center Engineering Colloquium

Date: Monday, September 29, 1997

Title: A Ghost Ship Comes to Life: The Design, Reconstruction, and Sea Trials of an Ancient Greek Warship

Speaker: Ford Weiskittel


The Trireme Project was founded in 1982 as an experiment in practical archaeology to answer many long-standing questions about triremes. These were ancient warships propelled by oars arranged in three levels -- the capital ships of Mediterranean navies from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C. It was by means of triremes that ancient Athens gained her wealth and projected her military power in the 5th century B.C., during which she developed the civilization of classical times. Yet no remains of triremes survive, and very little was known about these remarkable ships. Careful study of existing historical, epigraphical, and artistic evidence, coupled with modern techniques of structural and dimensional analysis, provided sufficient evidence for the design and construction of a trireme replica using the building techniques and materials of antiquity. The attested performance under oar is seen to be at the practical limit set by the materials of the time, demanding an extreme design whose slender hull relied critically upon details of the timber structure. The place in maritime history and the evidence about this highly developed vessel are summarized before discussing the building and sea-trials of Olympias, an operating replica of an Athenian trireme.


Ford Weiskittel is Director of the Trireme Trust USA and a former professor of classics and ancient history with degrees from Princeton University, where he studied architecture and archaeology, and Oxford University, where he studied classics. He has published articles on Roman architecture, Pompeii, Vitruvius, and the Greek trireme. He was one of the oarcrew during the first season of sea-trials of Olympias in 1987 and has served as Rowing Master for the four succeeding seasons of sea-trials in 1988, 1990, 1992, and 1993.

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