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The Newport Medieval Ship

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May 2019

Do you remember the rhyme, “in fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue”? This was the great era of global navigation and discovery. A recent revolution in design had produced ships big enough to carry the crew, water and supplies required for long months of exploration. We have a wealth of documentation, drawings and plans of the ships that made these voyages at the end of the 15th century, but of their medieval predecessors we have virtually nothing, apart from the ship found under the mud at Newport in 2002. Dr. Toby Jones from the project came to tell all to the May gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeology Society.

While constructing the orchestra pit for the Riverfront Theatre in Newport, the builders drove four steel walls into the mud to make a large rectangle and then proceeded to excavate the inside. Imagine their surprise when, after digging down 7 metres, they came across a ship, with timbers so well preserved they thought it could be no more than 200 years old. They prepared to dig out the timbers and dump them. Imagine their dismay when archaeologists told them that the timbers were nearer 600 years old, and thousands of local people joined in the struggle to convince the local council that the ship must be saved. Eventually the money was found to raise the ship and preserve it.

Concrete piles had already been driven through the hull, and the oak frame was joined solidly together by thousands of oak tree-nails, so there was no way the hull could be lifted whole like the Mary Rose. The only option was to saw manually and painfully through each tree-nail with a hacksaw blade, dismantle the ship and individually lift each of the 3,200 timbers, weighing up to half a ton each. The timbers are so well preserved that over 1,000 carpenter’s marks have been identified, and the maker’s marks of rusted-away iron rivets that were used to join the timbers of the outer skin can still be seen embossed into the wood. All the timbers were digitally recorded in minute detail, allowing each to be recreated on a 3D printer and the hull reconstructed on a one tenth scale.

Dendrochronology tells us that the ship was constructed in 1449 with oak from the Basque region of northern Spain. It was ‘clinker’ built with very strong overlapping oak planks joined with iron rivets. Some of the beams of the frame date from the 1460s and come from the South Wales area, showing that the ship was undergoing repairs in Newport. It seems that she was floated into an inlet at the highest spring tide onto a cradle of oak logs in order to carry out repairs in the dry. When the cradle and ship collapsed there was no way to recover her. Anything of value was salvaged leaving the lower hull to be slowly inundated by the Usk ooze. She was a big ship for the period, 35 metres long, of a 3 mast design common at the time. Think of the Matthew, and add another 20 percent. She would have taken a crew of up to 50 sailors and carried up to 160 massive tuns of wine.

Careful expert archaeology has recovered over 1,000 artefacts from the hull, including hoops and pieces of wine barrels that suggest she was trading wine between Portugal and Bristol. Countless tiny leaves in the mud around the hull have been identified as coming from a type of gorse found in the Algarve, which would have been used to cushion the barrels in the hold. Items of rigging, shoes, combs, knives and stone balls for the guns remind us of life aboard the ship. Beetles, fleas, the bones of extremely large rats and the leads of terriers used to catch them tell us that it was not particularly pleasant. A special artefact was a silver coin of 1447 with a cross design, still fixed to the head of the keel to bring good fortune to the ship.

Toby was originally employed on the project in 2004 on a one year contract, and 15 years later is still preserving and analysing the finds, along with a host of volunteers. It will take another 3 years to finish preserving all the timbers and reassemble them. The main issue now is finding a venue in Newport big enough to display a 35 metre ship, but it is sure to bring large numbers of visitors into the town. Currently, timbers and finds are on display at the Ship Centre near Newport. It’s open on Friday and Saturday and admission is free. And now the bridge is free there’s no excuse not to go and see it. Just google ‘Newport Ship’. Many thanks to Toby Jones for his fascinating and detailed talk.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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