The Maritime History of Wales 2: The Newport Medieval Ship

November 2021

In this, our second episode on the maritime history of Wales, Eirwen Abberley Watton speaks with Dr Toby Jones about a medieval ship that was discovered in the city of Newport in 2002, unearthed by chance during the construction of the Riverfront Arts Centre. The find provoked a huge response from the archaeological and local community who campaigned for funding so that it could be fully excavated. The ship turned out to be an exceptionally rare rind – a clinker built ship from the 15th century whose hull has been beautifully preserved in the mud of the RIver Usk along with several hundred objects including seeds, shoes, cork and coins, allowing historians and archaeologists to recreate the Atlantic world of the Newport Ship. To find out more Eirwen speaks with Dr. Toby Jones, a nautical archaeologist and the curator of the Newport Medieval Ship. Toby has worked on several other projects around the world, including the Red River Wreck in Oklahoma, the Aber Wrac’h I wreck in Brittany and the Mica shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico. He has also participated in shipwreck surveys along the southern coast of Cyprus and in the Algarve in Portugal.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the mariners mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history

     

    Eirwen Abberley-Watton

    Hello, and welcome back to our mariners mirror series about the maritime history of Wales. My name is Eirwen Abberley Watton and I’m from the Brecon Beacons area. Today I’m going to be finding out about mediaeval ship that was discovered in the city of Newport in 2002. The ship was unearthed by chance during the construction of the riverfront Art Centre. The find provoked a huge response from the archaeological and local community, who campaigned for funding so that it could be fully excavated. The ship had been preserved in excellent condition, so it’s an amazing find for the Welsh Port and there is a lot to talk about. The man to tell me all about it is Dr. Toby Jones. Toby is a nautical archaeologist and the curator of the Newport mediaeval ship, a 15th century clinker built merchant vessel found in the River Usk in Newport, South Wales in 2002. He’s worked on several other projects around the world, including the Red River Wreck in Oklahoma, the Aber Wrac’h wreck in Brittany and the Mica shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico. I really hope you enjoy the interview. It has really inspired me to find out more about mediaeval Wales and its connections to the Atlantic worlds.                   Thank you so much for talking to me today. Toby, can you briefly describe the Newport mediaeval ship for our viewers?

     

    Dr Toby Jones 

    It’s nearly 20 years now since they’ve discovered the mediaeval ship in the banks of the river in the centre of Newport. It was during construction work for the Riverfront Theatre and Art Centre. And during the excavations, they dug one very large deep pit. In the bottom of it, they found the intact remains of a massive mediaeval merchant vessel, beautifully preserved by the alluvial clay. It’s a very large clinker built or lap strake built merchant ship dates to the middle of the 15th century. And we know that based on dendrochronological research and artefactual research that it was built sometime just after 1449, and then it came into Newport in the late 1460s. And specifically after the spring of 1468, but before the winter 1469. And so you’re looking at a ship that was built and existed in the mid part of the 15th century. And for a bit of context, that’s right in the middle of the Wars of the Roses within the UK. Now, the ship itself is also coupled with that tree ring dating was the fact that timbers appear to come from the forests in the hinterland of the Basque Country. And so it looks like the ship was A: built sometime after 1449, but B:  built probably in the area around San Sebastian in the corner of the Bay of Biscay there. And so, that is a brilliant bit of archaeological and general criminal optical detective work, and that that really provided the rock solid dating for the ship. But the artefactual evidence has really supported that but also added to it in terms of basically every single thing found on board. The nuts and seeds and artefactual remains like ceramics coins. Everything is Iberian and specifically Portuguese. And so it looks like this ship, big merchant vessel was engaged in the wine trade and it looks like it was sailing from points probably south of Lisbon up across the Bay of Biscay up to seven estuary and probably trading with Bristol and then Bristol is right across the channel from Newport. And it looks like it came in to Newport in the late 1460s for repairs. And so midway through this repair process on the ship and it looks like it healed over and became inundated with mud and water. And because it’s a very highly tidal river here the River Usk in Newport, huge tidal range over 14 metres. And what happened was the ship very quickly became buried in the alluvial sediments and basically sealed. So it was wasn’t until summer 2002 that it was discovered when they were digging in that specific area.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    Wow. It’s amazing how well preserved it was.

     

    Dr Toby Jones 

    It was really down to the preservation conditions this it’s perfect for organics and everything from the leather shoes to the timbers. I mean the archaeologists were actually walking back and forth on the timbers of the ship in their steel toecaps I mean most of the shipwrecks I’ve seen and worked on they’re like wet cardboard. This is hard as a rock. We were actually cutting some of the timbers, in cutting them in to take dendro slices and you know oak typically goes black or very dark colour when it’s waterlogged and then buried, and what happened was the Newport Ship the outer layers were darkened or black, but you only had to cut through maybe 10/20 mil and we were getting like golden sawdust in these timbers, and they are fundamentally they’re waterlogged. But they’re not really decayed, which is a bit unusual. And it makes it’s a joy to work with, because it’s so robust, but it’s a problem at the same time because it’s very difficult for the conservation treatment to actually penetrate timbers and also to get the water out. And so just like the Mary Rose and the Vasa other big ship projects, we’ve been using polyethylene glycol, in their case, they sprayed the ships, but we were able to disassemble the ship and soak it. So we soaked it in the polyethylene glycol and then put it in a vacuum freeze dryer. And we’re still doing it. 12/13 years on,

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    We’re almost done, though. Wow. Say that’s still an ongoing process.

     

    Dr Toby Jones 

    Yep, we’re just over 80% Done. And we anticipate being completed, completely done with the the timbers are fully soaked with wax. That’s not an issue. But the freeze drying is a bottleneck and Mary Rose are currently undertaking the last freeze drying probably three or four of our loads. So hopefully this time next year, we ought to be done. Wow.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    It’s fantastic that it’s such a huge project. And when I was reading about it, I saw that there was a huge campaign at the beginning to make sure that the ship would be fully excavated. Were you involved in that?

     

    Dr Toby Jones 

    No, actually, I I was hired in 2004. I missed the actual excavation, it was the rescue excavation took them about six months, three months to uncover the ship and three months to disassemble it and raise it. And at that point, you know, they sigh of relief. And then they put on a huge warehouse and then took about a year of it just sitting there and watered. And then they hired a small team of us to, you know, basically what’s next, what do we do next. And so it was only supposed to be for a year, and that was 16 years ago. And we’re still working on it. It’s a huge, you know, monumental project. But it really was down to public pressure that it was saved in the first place. Because it was holding up construction. And it wasn’t, it wasn’t certain at first how significant it was and even how old it was because it was so well preserved. But a variety of dendro dates and artefactual initial analysis suggested this thing was mediaeval and therefore highly significant and a very rare survival. But it still wasn’t determined at that point that it was going to be saved, it may have just been a recorded discard. But in this case, the huge amount of public interest and public actually public protests and 24 hour vigils on site. And eventually enough pressure was brought to bear that they identified money not just to document what was there and but to actually remove it and save it for future study. Problem being it’s such an enormous object, I mean, it’s we have 124 metres of remains 10 metres wide, five metres tall, they couldn’t lift it as one. So they are even cut into sections. So what they had to do is actually disassemble into all this 1000s of individual component parts. And then at that point, they lifted the ship in pieces and but some of the pieces were originally say 14 metres long and half a tonne or more. So a lot of things had to be cut into smaller sections just to handle them safely or even fit him in the freeze dryer. But we end result we have, I think over 3000 timbers, you know on the database and probably 1000 artefacts and we’re at a warehouse here at Newport. And we’ve built big artefacts stores where we store the timbers and the all the dried material. And we’ve been doing trial reassembly of small sections, but we can’t try to assemble the whole thing because it’s too big. And so we just work in sections at a time and test how things are going to go together. But the ultimate goal of the entire project is to reassemble the ship is to dry out the remaining hull timbers and then we’re going to have the entire assemblage dry and conserved. And the whole goal is to reassemble the whole as it would have looked, reshape it, and support it and put it on display. So you can walk into a huge museum Hall and see an actual mediaeval merchant vessel, you know, reconstructed.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    Yeah, that’s, that’s fantastic. I’d love to come and visit when it’s finished. What kind of role might display both in in an educational role within the museum but also for future research?

     

    Dr Toby Jones 

    Yeah, the common thing is that, you know, once you reassemble it, or even the reassembly processes itself will double your knowledge and then when it’s actually reassembled, it just becomes obviously, a major visitor attraction but a huge research resource. And we did a couple of things that will help this early on, we digitally recorded all the timbers, we individually either scanned or digitally contact digitised every single timber in three dimensional using three dimensional

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    Wow, that must have taken a long time.

     

    Dr Toby Jones 

    Yeah, it took it took years and but what we had was what we created was a super high resolution, very detailed three dimensional drawing of every single timber and we laser scanned all the artefacts and that allowed us to 3d print even back in the early days of 3d printing. We 3d printed every single part of the ship at The one to 10 scale, we put that together built a one to 10 scale model, we laser scan that, and we use that to figure out what was missing in the original shape. And all of that  underpinned our work to basically create a 3D Blueprint and that 3D blueprint that we’re going to follow when we reassemble the ship. And so, you know, just from an archaeological research perspective, there’s been an academic outputs, that’s, you know, we’ve covered all that, I think in really in depth and in great detail. And, but the real payoff is actually getting it on display. And so for normal people, for non-academics to be able to appreciate this, that you have this tangible, you know, historic or artefact and piece of heritage, you know, people love ships. And we’ve had, you know, a number of studies done that said, getting the ship on display will draw 100,000, even 150,000 people a year would come to just to see this. And based on, you know, look at what happens at the Mary Rose, and the Boston, Stockholm, and you’ll get Cutty Sark and SS Great Britain, and you know, people, these are real attractions. And what we have here is totally unique. And so it’s taken a long time, you know, but ship projects take decades. But we are getting there to the point where, you know, there’ll be nothing standing in the way of reassembly. And so that is the ultimate goal. And we’re closer than ever, I mean, really, we’re within a year, I think of having no reason not to reassemble the ship, the big if there, or the thing you have to watch very carefully is that the two other major ships on display, the Vasa and the Mary Rose, they’re both having huge problems in terms of how they’re supported and how they’re structurally, they’re very damp. And we’re very aware of this. And we’re all you know, we share information with the other projects. And the key here is to support the ship in  as comprehensive way as possible to avoid point loading. And so we’re working with Swansea Uni and we’re developing some really fantastic cradle designs. And we think we can basically avoid all these problems that they’ve had. And we have a unique opportunity. Because Newport was disassembled, it’s basically flat packed, it’s in 1000s of individual pieces. So our idea is that we’re actually going to be able to build the cradle and then build the ship around it, instead of trying to and basically the beauty of the whole thing is that cradle is going to be invisible. So all you’re going to see is the ship.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    So you’ve spoken a little bit about the software you’re using to create a digital record of the ship, will that play a quite an important role in its reconstruction?

     

    Dr Toby Jones 

    Yeah, it’ll be critical to reconstructing the ship. Because, you know, to put it bluntly, a lot of the pieces look the same, but they’re not every single timber is a different length, thickness and width. And we were so fortunate they kept such good records during the excavation and every timber still has its tags in it and all that. So we know what each timber is and we have these massive 3D blueprints and and we know where each timber goes. The real key is the shape the geometry of it and getting that right, because the timber shrink, during the conservation, during the drying process, they actually swell up when they’re wet and then shrink again. And the problem is the shape of the ship in the ground is not the shape that the ship was in or is it the shape of the ship will be after it’s dried in the museum. So there’s actually something like seven different iterations that the ship from when it’s built to when it’s on display. There’s a fantastic range of artefacts, everything from coins and shoes to wooden bowls and combs and just really anything that was organic, just fantastic preservation at the expense of the metallic. There’s almost maybe 1 in a 100 nails had any iron left. And generally speaking, you never get a preservation environment that favours both organics and inorganics. So in this case, luckily, it favoured the organics, which is the bulk of the ship.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    That’s incredible. I came across the coin, actually, I think was it set into the keel. And I saw that you think that might be something to do with good luck. So I was wondering if there was any other kind of practices that might have been on the ship with the same sort of superstition.

     

    Dr Toby Jones 

    There are several interesting things like that on board the ship. I mean, the coin was fantastic. And it was actually one of the first really strong bits of dating evidence that was found, it was a silver coin purposely inserted in the keel of the ship where the right underneath where the stem scarfs over it. And basically, it’s the very first day you’re building the ship. And they chiselled that little hole in there, put a silver French coin in with a cross on it, and built a ship around it. They still do that today in the Basque Country, it’s seen as very vulnerable part of the ship and they actually will have like a priest there blessing it and giving it divine protection. And that’s what that coin is doing there. And that coin was only minted for two months in 1447. And so it’s the fact that his French isn’t really significant. It’s just that it has a cross on it. And but you should have seen it, we walked by that timber for several years before it came time to clean it and pull it out on the bench and a conservator found a coin just perfectly hidden in there. But there’s other things that we don’t understand like there’s some interesting hidden holes in the ship with neat little carved holes that have a little like a blanking plate over the top that makes it almost invisible. And then one of them was filled with chicken feathers, I mean, figure that out. So we just have these, we definitely have a lot of unanswered questions and that we’ve discovered both during the primary excavation, but we really doubled our knowledge during the individual analysis of each timber, which is pretty typical and ship projects, you have to really understand the ship, you need to look at not just what you see underwater in the field, but you need to clean the timbers and really study them in detail. And I mean, some of the remarkable details were these wrought iron clenched nails to basically hold this overlapping runs of planks together. And about every 150 mil, they’d run over these nails in through the two timbers that overlapped and then put a rove on the inside and paint over the nail, and basically create like an early form of a rivet. Well, they drove these nails in so hard, they left a nice dent. And it’s the perfect impression of the nail head. And same on the inside of the hole where this rectangular rove was that leaves a nice dent. So even though those have dissolved completely, you can see exactly where they were exactly what size they were. But even more remarkably, is that underneath the nail heads, we didn’t, we saw it must maybe a dozen times before we actually believed it. There’s actually the maker’s mark that was on the nail, this kind of six sided star, on the underside of the nail head was like a little bump, they’re standing proud when they hit that nail into the timber that star shape transferred into the timber. And that that nail dissolved long time ago, but those little star impressions are there. And like I said, we didn’t believe it until we saw it repeatedly. And that is the maker’s mark of the blacksmith on those nails, even though the nails are gone. It’s transferred over.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    That’s incredible. Yeah,

     

    Dr Toby Jones 

    It’s that level of detail that we found. And it’s, it’s only possible when you do this very detailed post excavation like secondary stage of recording, which takes time. So honestly, we’ve spent, I think I lasted the numbers in 2012. At that point, we’d spent over 110,000 hours on post X. You know, whatever those saying, with underwater archaeology, marine archaeology is that, you know, every month in the field a year in the lab, and we’re more than proving that, but it’ll be worth it. In the end,

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    I suppose there always will be unanswered questions. But just before we finish, is there any date that you can give our viewers for when they might be able to come and visit the completed ship,

     

    Dr Toby Jones 

    Not sure about the completed ship, but we are open right now every Saturday to the to the public, they can come and see the warehouse and just check the website. And in terms of a date, it’s actually I estimate, it’s going to take about three years to reassemble it. And so even if we had a home, a good year or two, I think to sort out a home, you need a huge, you know, a climate controlled hall. But if we can get that the actual reassembly process is going to take you know, I’m going to say two or three years, and we’ll be very, very dependent on volunteers and all that anyone who wants to get involved. But optimistically there’s no reason this couldn’t be done and dusted in five years. But in the meantime, there’s a great website, so just Google Newport ship. And the other thing is we’ve because we’re we’ve tried to everything open source and everything has been done digitally. We have deposited an enormous archive with the archaeology data service. And so there is something like 12 or 13,000 files, all of our primary files, all of our reports, drawings, everything, photographs, it’s all on the archaeology, data service. It’s all free. And so anyone could have access to anything that we’ve created.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    Well, it’s such an incredible find. So thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s been really, really interesting.

     

    Dr Toby Jones 

    Yeah, no problem at all.

     

    Eirwen Abberley Watton 

    Thank you all for listening. That’s it for today. If you enjoyed this episode, please do go and follow our social media pages. You can find us on Instagram and YouTube. If you would like to get even more involved, you can go and join the Society for Nautical Research, which does not cost a lot but it’s a huge support to us. You receive four copies a year of our Mariners Mirror Journal, which has been published for over a century, as well as access to all of the existing publications that there are online. Most importantly, you become part of a community dedicated to preserving and celebrating our maritime history. As always, we love to hear from you. So please get in touch with any questions, comments or thoughts that you may have about our podcasts. You’ll be hearing from me again very soon when I get the chance to learn more about the Bronze Bell shipwreck. Another fascinating find in North Wales, but this one involves a bronze bell from 1766 and 65 tonnes of Carrara marble. Join me again next time to learn more

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