April 24, 2006

Greek Shipbuilders Bring Mythical Argo to Life

By Deborah Kyvrikosaios

VOLOS, Greece -- Shipbuilders in this small Greek port are struggling with handmade tools and methods used millennia ago to recreate the Argo, the legendary vessel of Jason and the Argonauts.

The absence of modern resources such as electricity and machine tools makes it an exhausting task, but authenticity is an essential part of this experiment in ancient shipbuilding.

"It's extremely laborious work," said builder Stelios Kalafatidis. "We don't have large, proper, modern tools, only our hands and wooden mallets and chisels."

In one of the most popular tales of Greek mythology, Jason and his handpicked crew of Argonauts sailed from Volos, named Iolcos in ancient times, on a quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece from the ancient city of Colchis in the modern country of Georgia.

Aided by heroes such as Hercules and Orpheus, Jason overcame monsters and hostile kings on his lengthy mission to snatch the fleece of the sacred golden ram from the dragon guarding it and run off with Medea, the sorceress and daughter of Colchis' king.

The Naudomos Institute, a group of shipbuilders and historians heading the project, is using ancient Greek tools and techniques to build the new Argo, and plans to retrace the mythical journey when the ship is ready.

The team had to ignore everything they knew about modern boat-building and employ the same wood and iron tools used by Jason's warriors more than 3,000 years ago.


In Greek myth, 50 Argonauts built the Argo in three months with the aid of the goddess Athena, who placed a magical piece of timber in the prow that could speak and prophesy.

The three modern-day builders say they could use some divine help in recreating the 14th century BC vessel. In 15 months' hard work, they have built only one quarter of the 92-foot ship.

Wooden pegs and wedges hold together the ship's frame and planks. In ancient times, the gaps between the planks were caulked with resin, but the modern builders have mixed the resin with glue to preserve the ship for future generations when it is housed in a museum after its journey.

Whole trees were placed in the hull, said project director Apostolos Kourtis, who searched for days in the same forests as Jason's men to find long, straight trees for the purpose.

"They used whole trees that were bent into shape. We don't do that today," Kourtis said. "Ships were without frames, there was no metal."

Veteran shipbuilder Yannis Perros, one of the team, said he had doubts when he first saw the plans.

"We were saying 'how are we going to build it with entire trees?"' he said. "But it's a durable structure, it will float and travel miles."

In recreating the myth, there were few facts to go on. The story was first written down by Apollonius Rhodius about 11 centuries after the voyage is thought to have taken place.


To design the ship, the modern shipbuilders pieced together images from ancient vase paintings, wall frescoes and references to ships from around the same period, gathered from museums and libraries around the world.

Kourtis said the appearance of the ship was easier to determine than how it was built -- although it helped that shipbuilding methods changed little in ancient times.

"This is experimental archeology, an investigation, in order to come as close to the original version as possible and say, this is how it most likely was," he said.

The idea of copying ancient ships is not new. A 4th century BC Athenian trireme was replicated by a British scholar in the 1980s, as was the Greek merchant ship Kyrenia, from the same period, by Greek professors.

But their task was easier because the original Kyrenia, very well preserved, was raised from the seabed off northern Cyprus, and ample descriptions of the trireme existed in the literature of the time.

The Naudomos Institute first experimented with ancient shipbuilding in 2004 by completing a smaller Bronze age Minoan transport ship.

Once the Argo is complete, citizens can volunteer to crew the 50-oar ship on Jason's journey across the Aegean, through the Bosporus to the Black Sea and on to the coast of Georgia.

They face an arduous test, rowing for 10 to 15 hours a day, Kourtis said. "I have no doubt about the ship. The question is whether the rowers will be able to find the strength needed to complete the journey," he said.