When construction work began on a new arts center in Newport, South Wales, in 2002, the builders on the site could hardly imagine what they would unearth. While excavating the foundations on the banks of the River Usk, a section of a medieval wooden ship was discovered that had been perfectly preserved by the flooded river silt. Archaeologists were called in and it soon became clear that the vessel was extraordinary.
This was not a coastal sailing ship that had sailed the Severn estuary until the 19th century. Rather, she was a “great ship” by medieval standards, one that would have traveled the long-distance routes of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. And yet there it was, or at least part of it, lying on an old slipway in what would have been a small Welsh port with a population of about 500 during the Middle Ages.
The wreckage of the ship quickly caught the public imagination, with large numbers of local people visiting the wreck. It was a reminder that while Newport is best known historically as a 19th-century iron city, the city has a long history closely tied to the sea.
So it was perhaps inevitable that the locals would be outraged when they learned that “their” ship was simply going to be searched where it was, before being sampled and then demolished. The price tag seemed too high; preserving the remains would take decades and cost millions.
Excavations of other ships, such as Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, had shown how expensive it would be. But local passion and campaigns overcame such considerations, and plans eventually changed. The ship would be saved.
Twenty years later, the task of excavating, preserving, and recording all the woods and artifacts is nearly complete. Attention now turns to rebuilding the wreck and considering how best to display the ship in the future.
Since its discovery, we have learned much more about the Newport ship. It’s not like the Mary Rose or the Vasa, a 17th century Swedish warship recovered in 1961. Both are complete ships, full of artifacts. The Newport ship is the surviving part of a ship that was wrecked while undergoing maintenance in dry dock.
Most of the contents, and almost all of the upper parts of the structure, were saved and removed before a medieval harrow was built on top. So only part of the hull remains intact. However, that fragment is important both because it is wonderfully preserved and because it is the largest and most complete section of a 15th-century European ship discovered to date.
In addition, dendrochronology (the scientific method of dating tree rings to the year in which they were formed) has made it possible to specify that the ship was built in 1450 in the Basque Country. The same techniques, when applied to the collapsed scaffolding used to hold the ship in place, can tell us when she was wrecked in one year (1468). This has made it possible to place the vessel in an eventful period, at the dawn of the age of discovery in Europe and the War of the Roses.
The Newport Medieval ship represents the final flowering of a shipbuilding tradition that dates back centuries. This involved the construction of a shell, made of overlapping planks, into which a relatively light frame was installed to provide stability.
It has more in common with Viking ships than with skeleton-built ships of the early modern period. But the Newport ship is much bigger than the Viking ships. In her heyday, she was able to transport 160 tuns (about 320,000 pints) of wine in her cellar, on a voyage from Bordeaux.
One of the most positive aspects of the project has been the way in which archaeologists, curators, scientists and other experts have collaborated. A team of historians I assembled examined the context of the ship to better understand the world from which it came.
New recording techniques were also introduced, including 3D scanning of each wood. This made it possible to digitally rebuild (and even 3D print to scale) the entire vessel. In many ways, it was reattached long before the actual beams touched each other.
More recently, the project’s curator, Toby Jones, has worked with the Friends of the Newport Ship charity to produce intricate visual reconstructions of the vessel. 3D animated films are being used to communicate the nature of the vessel to the public, as well as provide experts with new investigative avenues to explore.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Evan Jones received £2000 from Newport City Council / The Friends of the Newport Ship to cover part of the costs of holding a conference on “The World of the Newport Medieval Ship” in 2014. Both bodies also made contributions (totaling £3,114) for the publication costs of the subsequent book ‘The World of the Newport Medieval Ship’ (University of Wales Press, 2018).