Multi-talented Sheila Matthews has been on the go for INA almost from the moment she entered the initial class of nautical archaeology graduate students at Texas A&M University in 1976. She already had a degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin, and underwater field experience from the excavations of the 1554 Fleet at Padre Island, Texas, and of very early cultural remains at Little Salt Spring, Florida -- in addition to five months on an earlier land excavation in Mexico. With this background, she was a welcome addition in early 1978 to the INA team excavating the 17th-century Portuguese Santo Antonio de Tanna in Mombasa Harbor, Kenya.
Summer of the same year changed her life when she went to Turkey to dive with another INA team on the excavation of the 11th-century “Glass Wreck” at Serçe Liminı. At the end of the campaign she remained in Turkey for two years to assist Frederick van Doorninck in organizing the wreck artifacts, and to begin the study of the hull, whose wooden fragments were kept wet until placed in tanks for treatment with polyethylene glycol for several years. For the hull study she traced each side of every wooden fragment at full scale onto plastic sheets supported on glass, using various colors to record every tool mark, nail hole, or other feature she encountered. Sent back to College Station, these tracings allowed J. Richard Steffy to begin making a series of tenth-scale dioramas and models, lining up nail holes and tool marks in order to determine both how the ship had originally been constructed and how it disintegrated.
After moving back and forth between Texas and Turkey for the next two years, Sheila completed her M.A. thesis on the rigging of the Serçe Liminı ship in 1983, and immediately joined INA’s permanent staff in Bodrum, Turkey, where she has lived ever since. Her first task there lasted five years. Working largely alone in a specially designed building in the castle that houses the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, she reassembled for display and study the hull of the 11th-century ship, now seen annually by hundreds of thousands of visitors.
During all this time, Sheila dived on almost every INA survey of the Turkish coast, took part in the excavations of Late Roman and Ottoman shipwrecks at Yassi Ada, and even while piecing together the medieval Serçe Liminı hull found time to assist, for a month or more each year, the excavation of a Bronze Age shipwreck at Uluburun. She proved so valuable there that when Fred Hocker began the excavation of a ninth-century Byzantine wreck near Bozburun, he appointed her assistant excavation director, a position she ably held for four years.
That was only in the summers. For the rest of each year, George Bass asked her to organize the volunteer students of medieval Islamic art who came to Bodrum for a term or a year at a time to assist in the study and publication of the glass vessels that were being mended from about a million shards by the INA conservation staff. She is a senior co-author of both volumes on the Serçe Liminı shipwreck, the first on the ship, itself, with its passengers and crew, and the second just on the glass, partly illustrated by her exquisite drawings. In addition, her continuing work on the publication of the Santo Antonio de Tanna has taken her back to Kenya for several extended stays.
During the three-year excavation of the classical Greek shipwreck at Tektaş Burnu, Sheila learned still another skill. In 2000, using a system of mapping designed by Tufan Turanlı, which uses a combination of digital photographs and various computer programs, she became the institute’s mapping expert, almost single-handedly producing accurate, three-dimensional plans of the fifth-century B.C. Tektaş Burnu wreck, the sixth-century B.C. Archaic Greek wreck at Pabuç Burnu, and the first-century B.C. Roman wreck at Kızılburun.
In the meantime, she is studying five wrecks in the silted Byzantine harbor of Constantinople located several years ago at Yenikapı, Istanbul. And during her annual vacations visits exotic places from India to the Yucatan to Viet Nam!
Archaeologist, diver, ship reconstructor, author, mapping expert, illustrator, traveler, Sheila seems always to be in demand. Where in the world does she also find the time for her passion, riding horses!