After a decade of work on the Newport Ship specialists are sharing their wealth of information with the world. But with funding cuts planned a council officer says a trust is the best way forward for the project. DAVID DEANS reports.

AFTER years of endeavour, specialists working on the Newport Medieval Ship are sharing their wealth of information on the archaeological find on the internet.

Later this year the project faces moving from its home in Maesglas to a yet unknown location, with the lease on the unit set to end in October.

But with plans to end the scheme’s funding on the horizon, the future of the project is uncertain – with a council officer saying the best way forward could be a proposed trust.

Last week the Argus revealed that supporters of the ship were mulling over whether to set up a charity to take the project on.

It is the aim of many of those backing and involved with the ship to see it reconstructed and displayed in a museum in the city.

Experts have been working away for years at Maesglas Industrial Estate on recording and conserving the find, which was discovered in 2002 at the location where the Riverfront Theatre was to be built.

Inside the unassuming unit are four tanks of material stood next to three humidity-controlled shipping containers which contain artefacts and timbers.

Standing next to the containers is a large silver freeze dryer, where the remains are being preserved.

Some 3,000 parts of the ship were found – some tiny fragments, some that are enormous. So far between 400 and 500 timbers have been preserved in the freeze dryer over the last 18 months, meaning the conservation project is a quarter of the way through.

The work is taking the project longer than anticipated, thanks to the fact that the timbers are so well preserved, but it is hoped that conservation will be finished around 2017.

This part of the project Newport council has committed to, having entered into a contract with York Archaeology Trust to complete the job.

But the lease on the Maesglas unit ends in October, and museum and heritage officer for Newport City Council, Mike Lewis, says they are currently looking for alternative premises.

It is thought the unit at Maesglas is too big for what the project needs.

On the archaeological side of the project, two-peer reviewed academic journal articles have recently been published, while preparations have been made for 12,500 files of data gathered by the project to be posted on a website.

The online archive, made possible thanks to a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is now available to view.

“Everything we produce here, we want to get it out,” said project curator Toby Jones.

“We don’t want to hoard or hide anything.

“It belongs to the public, if they are interested.”

A further internet article is planned, linking to the archive, as is a traditional book.

The website platform will allow the project to exhibit what the ship might have looked like in 3D.

Mr Jones said a virtual Newport ship will be accessible online, allowing people to explore every single nail and scratch mark of the ship over the internet.

Finds from the ship point to strong connections to Iberia – Spain and Portugal – with some timbers on the ship thought to have been harvested in the Basque region after 1449.

Mr Jones said there was an established trading route between the southern coast of Iberia and the Bristol Channel, with a “huge demand” in Britain for wine, with a big call for English cloth in return.

The ship is not a true shipwreck, however, and Mr Jones said there had been an “obvious decision to repair” the structure.

“Anything that was in the way of them working on the ship they took out. It wasn’t a true shipwreck. It’s been purposely cleaned out,” he said.

“They were missing all these things that you would normally find on a ship wreck, like all the big blocks, the big rope, the masts and everything.”

Mr Jones says the ship was put on a cradle structure in Newport: “Before they can take the ship back out again, it looks like that cradle structure collapses on the lower side.”

This would have caused the vessel to fall over, leaving the ship to fill up with water.

“They’ve drilled all these little holes through the planking in the lowest part of the ship. They are trying to carefully drain it so they can patch the holes up,” Mr Jones explained.

But he said: “It still doesn’t matter, 12 hours later it’s going to fill with water again.

“I think they give up trying to save it even though it’s hugely valuable.”

The Newport Ship project is facing having its budget cut to nothing by 2016 – losing £105,000 in 2014/15 and £145,000 in 2015/16 – if proposed cuts are passed at full council later this month.

Over the years the project has received around £8 million, with around £4.5 million coming from external grants.

Mr Lewis said the council’s position was that this is an internationally important project. “The council has been able to take it so far that we need some help now,” he said.

The Argus asked if the budget for 2014/15 would cover the sought after new premises. “We’re looking at how we can work that out,” said Mr Lewis.

He said there was a “measure of uncertainty over this”, as there was in lots of areas in the council at the moment.

But he said the timbers “will be housed. We’re working on a basis that we will find a solution.”

Mr Lewis said a trust “is the way forward” with funding opportunities open to charitable trusts that are closed to councils.

The council officer added: “It’s unusual for local government to be involved in a project like this. It’s not something that local government does.

“We have done remarkably well as a council in supporting the project to this point. We need to think about the next step.”

There are examples of other maritime heritage ship projects that have been led by trusts, such as the SS Great Britain in Bristol and the Mary Rose in Portsmouth.

Mr Jones suggested that the project could be kept going with a modest amount of cash.

He said: “We’re looking at, can we say, five figures? We’re not looking at a colossal amount of money per year to run the project.”

A trust would need to be viable, however.

Peter Hayward, chairman of the Friends of the Newport Ship, said no one would provide funding unless it can be shown that it is.

The Friends of the Ship are currently looking into the idea and Mr Hayward says he wants to have an answer to the question within the next six months.

“The Heritage Lottery Fund won’t fund something unless it’s going to be viable,” he said.

Presuming it would be viable, a future trust could look at many different sources of cash – commercial sponsors, European funding, charitable grant-giving organisations.

“We have to look at every opportunity to raise funds,” he said.

Putting the ship in an industrial shed-like building could be a cheaper option, perhaps costing around £4m, Mr Hayward suggested.

But he said that would be “limited in what we could do” and wouldn’t be “much of an iconic building.”

The latter could have a museum with a wider scope but the cost would go up and up.

“It depends how iconic you want it to be,” he said.

He added that previous council’s proposals for a new museum, including the whole of the existing city museum, may have been looking at £30 million.

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Wills and Kate could take on Newport ship project - Newport councillor

The politician who oversees culture and leisure at Newport council says that the Newport Ship would be a great project for Wills and Kate to take on.

Newport Council’s cabinet member for culture and leisure, Debbie Wilcox, said the ship trust proposed by the project’s supporters is a very good option. However, yesterday’s council meeting over the 2014/15 budget saw no mention of the Newport Ship – meaning plans to cut the budget down to zero are to still go before councillors later this month.

Cllr Wilcox said: “I would like to see it as a project for, lets say, William and Kate. Prince Charles is very involved in the Mary Rose. I think it would be an ideal project for a significant, but senior royal, to get involved.

“Prince William of Wales and the Newport Ship. What a great combination.”

“The way that they operate with their patronage charities, the whole charitable trust idea would bring those levers in,” she argued.

Cllr Wilcox said that as the Newport Ship was such a unique project “a trust is a very good option”, agreeing that a trust may have access to funds that the council does not.

“What’s important is that we continue to discharge our responsibilities towards the ship and do what we can to enable the trust to be set up by this very committed group of people,” she said.

Ship supporters have been critical of Newport council budget proposals for a zero budget for the ship, with planned cuts of £105,000 in 2014/15 and £145,000 in 2015/16, and have questioned how storage costs can be met in such circumstances.

But the second proposal is in the medium term financial plan and not next year’s budget, which Cllr Wilcox says there are areas that can always be revisited.

Cllr Wilcox said they would not do anything that would harm the preserved Newport Ship timbers.

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