J. Richard “Dick” Steffy (1924–2007)

J. Richard “Dick” Steffy

Dick Steffy, who established the discipline of ship reconstruction almost single-handedly, died on November 29, 2007, at the age of 83.

Dick was a groundbreaking scholar and a wonderfully warm human being. He left a successful and secure career as an electrical engineer to help found the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and the nautical archaeology program at Texas A&M University.

Few scholars create an entirely new discipline. Dick did. In fact, he literally wrote the book on ship reconstruction, titled Wooden Ship Building and the Interpretation of Shipwrecks (1994). All those who came into contact with his gentle genius recognized Dick’s contribution to scholarship. Although he had no formal training, Texas A&M University conferred a full professorship on him, and in 1985 he became a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. 

In the 1970s Dick worked with Michael and Susan Katzev and their team on the Kyrenia wreck, a Greek merchant ship that sank c. 300 B.C. off the northern coast of Cyprus. This was the first ancient ship to be raised from the Mediterranean seabed, conserved and reconstructed. Of the multitude of hulls that Dick studied, the Kyrenia ship remained his “baby.” He was still making new discoveries about her during his last days.

Dick made numerous visits to Israel to study the country’s shipwrecks, some of which are of unique importance. His work on the Athlit Ram and the Galilee Boat (the so-called “Jesus boat,”) remain masterpieces of detective work. Simply put, Dick could “read” a vessel’s construction the way you or I might read a newspaper. He was that good. Sometimes it was uncanny. After Dick had his first opportunity to study the Galilee Boat in daylight, he showed me a sketch of what he thought the boat had looked like. Soon afterwards the Franciscan Fathers Stanislau Lofreda and Virgilio Corbo, who had excavated at nearby Migdal, visited our boat excavation. They told me of a boat depicted in a first-century A.D. mosaic at their site. When Corbo drew it in my field notebook, I got goose bumps. His drawing replicated exactly what Dick had just drawn. Of course, Dick thought I was pulling his leg when I showed him Corbo’s drawing.1

Dick’s wife of almost 40 years, Lucille, died in 1991. His two sons, David and Loren, his sister Muriel, his brother Milton and his seven grandchildren survive him. Dick will be deeply missed by all who knew him.— Shelley Wachsmann, Texas A&M University


1. See Shelley Wachsmann, “The Galilee Boat—2,000-Year-Old Hull Recovered Intact,” BAR, September/October 1988.

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