Ford Weiskittel, president of the U.S. Trireme Trust, to speak at Fairfield University Nov. 11 on "An Ancient Warship Comes to Life"


S. Ford Weiskittel, president of the U.S. Trireme Trust, which supported a Greek initiative to test a replica of a 5th century B.C. warship, will present a slide lecture on the adventure at Fairfield University on Tuesday, Nov. 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the Multimedia Room of the DiMenna-Nyselius Library. The lecture is free and the public is welcome.

A remarkable technological achievement, the Greek trireme of 5th century B.C. was designed to ram other ships. Powered by both sail and oar, with a crew numbering approximately 120, these warships are credited with saving Greek civilization from Persian conquest because of their role in the Athenian victory over the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis.

About thirty years ago, several British scholars undertook to establish definitively just what a trireme looked like and how it was rowed. Their task was made difficult because nobody had ever found a trireme. While archaeologists had found numerous wrecks of ancient merchant vessels on the bottom of the Mediterranean, it is thought that the trireme ships, built of light wood, probably broke up in the surf or were towed away by victorious enemies.

Dr. William Abbott, associate professor of history at Fairfield, who was on a rowing team at Oxford with Weiskittel during the mid-seventies, said, "The project presented some fascinating archaeological challenges. Nevertheless, the whole experience was a good example of how historians, archaeologists, and engineers can get together to experiment and learn more about the ancient world."

With funding from the Greek government to build a life-size replica of an ancient trireme, two scholars, one a Classicist and the other a naval architect, established the dimensions of a trireme and how it must have been operated. They drew from such diverse sources as pictures on pottery, stone carvings, references in ancient Greek literature, and the remains of the sheds where the triremes were built.

The replica was constructed during the mid- and later 1980s and commissioned in the Greek navy with the name Olympias. Weiskittel was responsible for collecting and training the American portion of the oar crew and even did some rowing himself during the sea trials, which went on for four or five years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The sea trials tried to determine how fast the ship would go and how well it could maneuver, while a 120-person oar crew rowed together, in three banks of oars. Even at its fastest, the conclusion was that the Olympias surely did not go as fast as an ancient trireme rowed by an experienced Athenian oar crew.

For more information, please contact Dr. William Abbott at (203) 254-4000, ext. 2514.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on October 28, 2008

Vol. 41, No. 109