The Newport Medieval Ship
The Newport Ship is the most substantial medieval ship excavated in modern times in Britain.
Professor Nigel Nayling
The Newport Ship was discovered in 2002 during the construction of the Riverfront Performing Arts Centre on the bank of the river Usk in Newport in South East Wales.
Once rescue excavations revealed that over 20 metres of the ship were present in the construction area and threatened by the development, a vigorous campaign both nationally and through a local community group, "Save Our Ship" pushed for the ship's recovery and preservation.
Funding was secured and the ship has been lifted for study, conservation and eventual display.
These web pages provide an insight into the research being undertaken into the ship through partnership between the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Newport Museum and Heritage Service which curates the ship.
These web pages complement an interim exhibition at the Newport Ship Centre funded through the ShipShape project, a partnership project supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Each year the AHRC provides funding from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities. Only applications of the highest quality are funded and the range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. For further information on the AHRC, please go to: www.ahrc.ac.uk.
The Newport Medieval Ship was uncovered during deep excavations for the Riverfront Theatre, along the west bank of River Usk in the town centre of Newport.
The mid 15th century merchant ship was discovered in June 2002 and excavated and raised over the next six months. A team of archaeologists documented the ship and also found a wide range of exciting artefacts, including leather shoes, coins, and even a skeleton.
The public followed the excavation with great interest and support. The remains of the ship and the artefacts were eventually brought to the Newport Ship centre. Archaeologists and conservators are meticulously cleaning, recording, modelling and preserving the thousands of objects that comprise one of the most exciting medieval assemblages ever found.
Today the work is focused primarily on conserving the ship timbers and artefacts, and determining the original hull form (shape) of the ship.
The Newport Ship was brought into a pill, or side channel, of the River Usk some time in the mid to late 1460s. The ship heeled over and filled with sediment, which acted to preserve the timbers and artefacts. The ship soon disappeared under the mud, and remained hidden until it was discovered over 530 years later.
Prior to construction of the theatre, builders placed a large steel coffer dam (like a steel fence, but underground) around part of the site. A majority of the ship remains were contained within this coffer dam, which was designed to help the builders safely excavate the sediment prior to putting in the foundations for the underground parts of the theatre. Thousands of people got the chance to look over the coffer dam and see the archaeologists working on the ship.
The ship was disassembled and raised piece by piece. The waterlogged oak timbers were well preserved, but the iron fasteners holding the ship’s hull planking together had largely corroded. Wooden nails, called treenails, were the other main type of fastener used to hold the ship together. These were better preserved and had to be sawn by the archaeologist in order to separate the pieces of the ship.
In order to understand a complex object like the Newport Ship, it is important to examine, measure and record details of the size and shape of both the whole ship and its individual components.
To accomplish this task in the field, archaeologists use a variety of tools and technologies, including site drawings, photography, and high-technology survey equipment and photogrammetry.
In the ship centre, archaeologists are creating detailed records of each ship timber and artefact using contact digitizers and laser scanners.
Both of these tools create three dimensional records that are visible in computer aided design (CAD) software. The drawings and scans are accurate and allow archaeologists to document and examine construction features and builder’s marks. Archaeological illustration, a more traditional hand recording technique, is also used to record finely worked objects, whose important, yet minute surface detail might be missed by cameras or laser scanners.
Hundreds of amazing artefacts were recovered during the excavation of the Newport Ship. Items like the pulley blocks and rigging elements were used during the working life of the ship. A range of leather shoes were found, including a patten, a sort of overshoe made from wood and metal. An archer’s wrist guard and a brass strip (probably from a helmet), both with Latin inscriptions, were found during the excavation. Other items include Portuguese coins and ceramics.
One of the most important objects is a silver French coin, found purposely inserted into a small rebate in the keel. The coin was placed in a small hole early on in the ship’s construction. Experts have dated the coin to the late 1440s.
Finely carved wooden combs, bowls and a wooden gaming piece show the high level of skill of medieval craftsmen. The waterlogged condition of the site helped to preserve many of the organic items.
Conservation at the ship centre involves the cleaning and stabilisation of materials found during the ship excavation. After evaluating an object, the conservators work carefully to remove corrosion and clay in order to uncover the original surface detail. They use tools like x-ray machines and CT scanners to look inside objects without damaging them. This is especially useful for composite objects like the ship’s pump, which is made from wood, leather and iron.
Some objects are cleaned mechanically with tools, while others are cleaned by hand or with chemicals. Different materials call for different techniques. You might be surprised to learn that the most commonly used chemical in the ship centre is fresh water.
After cleaning and conservation, objects can be put on display for people to study and admire. The conservator’s job doesn’t end there, however. They must monitor the environment which surrounds the objects, including the air temperature and humidity, in order to ensure the long term survival of the artefacts.
The Newport Ship will be displayed in a large hall after conservation. The vessel will be reassembled, piece by piece, over several years. It is likely that a cradle will be used to support the vessel. Archaeologists will build the ship in the same order as the original builders, starting with the keel and adding the planking and then the frames. The ship will be surrounded by galleries and exhibits about medieval life in Newport, with detailed displays about trade, society, and industry, and illustrated with artefacts from the excavation.
You will be able to walk around the ship, as well as peer down on it from galleries. The rebuilt ship has the potential to bring thousands of visitors to Newport every year.
How and where would you like to see the ship displayed?
The Newport Medieval Ship Project is part of the Newport Museum and Heritage Service, which, in turn, is part of Newport City Council. The University of Wales Trinity Saint David is the lead academic partner in the project.
The project is supported by various organisations, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, CADW – Welsh Historic Monuments, the National Museum Wales, the Headley Trust, the EU Marie Curie Fund, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, , the Friends of the Newport Ship, and by Welsh Assembly Government through CyMAL, and the Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales.
The Friends of Newport Ship support the ship project by:
- raising public awareness
- providing guides and activities for open days
- raising funds for equipment and activities
- helping with archaeological and conservation work
- promoting a new museum to display the ship
The Friends started off as the campaign to ensure the ship was saved. By joining the Friends you demonstrate the level of public support for the ship, and that’s vital when seeking grants to complete the project.
Please contact us if you would like to know more about the ship project or to book lectures or tours.
Arts and Humanities Research Council
Each year the AHRC provides funding from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities. Only applications of the highest quality are funded and the range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. For further information on the AHRC, please go to: www.ahrc.ac.uk.