Frederick H. van Doorninck, Jr.

by George F. Bass

I could not have been luckier than to have had Frederick van Doorninck as a colleague for half a century. Fresh out of the army, and with a Princeton degree in Near Eastern Studies, he joined me as a fellow graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1960. The following summer he was on my excavation of a seventh-century Byzantine shipwreck at Yass? Ada, Turkey. Had that not happened, the field of nautical archaeology would not be where it is today, for we would not have the revolutionary contributions Fred has since made to the study of ancient hulls, ballast, anchors, amphoras, and warship rams.

Fred served as assistant director on three of my major shipwreck excavations. I am proud of how many resultant books and articles bear both of our names as authors. Without his exceptional scholarly abilities, these publications would have suffered. In 2007, at an international conference organized to celebrate the quarter-century anniversary of our publication of the Byzantine wreck, one speaker referred to us as the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers of nautical archaeology – indeed, neither of us could have accomplished alone what we have done together.

Discussions with Fred led me to incorporate the American Institute of Nautical Archaeology (now INA) in 1972, and when INA affiliated with Texas A&M University in 1976, he left his teaching position in classics at the University of California, Davis, to become one of the original faculty of Texas A&M’s new Nautical Archaeology Program, working half-time for INA.

Why is Fred unique? There are archaeologists with longer lists of publications, but no one has contributed more new knowledge to our field than Fred van Doorninck. His creativity is always directed toward new areas of research, areas that involve seeing things that no one else has seen before. He does not catalogue and arrange facts, or synthesize other people's ideas. He does not tackle ordinary problems. He gravitates toward the hard nut to crack, because he feels, rightly, that that is where his special talent lies.

When one takes his approach to scholarship, it means tying a large millstone around one's neck. There is no large body of literature to turn to, but endless preparatory work. Our Yass? Ada excavation publication was delayed nearly a decade because Fred was working in a vacuum, trying to understand how an ancient, wrecked ship was built, rather than looking in library stacks for parallels for the artifacts on board. I and the other authors were frustrated and unsympathetic. But no one before had known how the change from shell-first to frame-first ship construction took place (with its major technological, economic and historical implications), or even how to look for it. Thus, Fred spent years gathering necessary measurements and other data for the successful study that led to his understanding the change. This was all new, yet a search through the literature shows that understanding and tracing this change is now a major research concern – all begun by Fred, the first person ever to restore on paper the hull of an ancient Mediterranean shipwreck from its fragmentary seabed remains. He then turned this new branch of scholarship over to J. Richard Steffy and moved on to other things.

Although he is intuitive, Fred's successes come from infinite patience. How many dozens of references to the early history of the warship ram were wrong because no other scholar made the effort he made to review the evidence?  His discovery was not due to serendipity but to thoroughness. He reviewed all of the published early representations of rams on pottery, and then turned to those on ancient fibulae, going over old ground. But he found it difficult to make out published representations on the fibulae, so he went back to original excavation reports until he discovered the one fibula, published decades earlier, that changed the date of the introduction of the ram. Why had no other scholar working on this problem noticed it? He later bracketed the ram’s entire history by writing on the demise of the waterline ram.

The length of time it takes to gather the data for Fred’s work cannot be overemphasized. He spent the equivalent of a year of ten-hour days working on the anchors from the Byzantine ship, using an extremely complex process of restoring them to the condition in which they could be studied. But his work should not be measured by the physical techniques he uses, but what he does with the information he retrieves. What other archaeologist could have reached the same valid conclusions about the metallurgy, weights, and uses of ancient anchors? Fred had opened another area of research, which is now commonplace.

Fred next was the first to study in detail evidence for the re-use of amphoras as transport jars. This is no minor accomplishment, the amphora being one of the most common artifacts of antiquity. Yet the discovery came about only after he had spent several spring semesters in Turkey in the careful cleaning and scrutiny of amphoras from our wrecks. Taking from an hour to four days to clean just one of hundreds of amphoras, he found few assistants, including graduate students, who could clean graffiti on amphoras carefully enough for him to study.

A combination of these last two pursuits on the 11th-century Serçe Liman? shipwreck allowed Fred to determine why the Y-shaped anchors of the period were formed as they were, and that at least one of the names in graffiti on the ship’s amphoras was an abbreviated Slavic name. The last discovery led him to learn to read Bulgarian, Russian, and Rumanian and from that he determined that the ship was sailed by Hellenized Bulgarian merchants who lived on the north coast of the Sea of Marmara near Constantinople. Underwater archaeology is not just about diving!

Fred’s current passion is the new study of capacities of Byzantine amphoras, in which he has trained former Texas A&M graduate student Peter van Alfen, now a curator at the American Numismatic Society and an INA director. Their study of the globular amphoras from the Yass? Ada is shedding new light on the military reforms of the emperor Heraclius and the last campaign in his war against the Persians, while Fred's study of the capacities of the Serçe Liman? amphoras has revealed that such studies have unexpected potential as a source of economic history.

Archaeologists usually make their names in areas of specialization. But once Fred has tackled a problem and solved it, he moves on, rather than becoming "the grand old man" of that subject. Others of us can bring public awareness to underwater archaeology, and organize and raise necessary funds for excavations. But none of us can do what Fred does.

And it is fun to be with Fred and his wife Betty Jean, neighbors in both Bodrum, Turkey, and College Station, Texas!


Fred van Doorninck

at Yassiada