It captured the imagination of Newport when it was found and sparked a campaign that attracted the support of thousands of people.
Ten years on from the discovery of the city’s medieval ship DAVID DEANS investigates progress to conserve it.
IT has been a decade since it was discovered on a bank of the Usk – but a team of specialists are still continuing the work to preserve and eventually rebuild the Newport Medieval Ship.
The shop was found at the building site for the Newport Riverfront Theatre in 2002 and was excavated following a campaign that saw protesters holding a 24-hour vigil and thousands signing petitions.
Ten years on, the ship resides in a Maesglas industrial estate unit, where a team of specialists have cleaned and recorded each of the boat’s timbers and are now working to conserve them.
They are led by project curator Toby Jones – an American archaeologist who was plucked from his former home in San Diego in 2004 to get the ship rebuilt.
“What we were presented with in the warehouse was a lifesize 3D jigsaw puzzle, with no box lid.”Project curator Toby Jones
Mr Jones told the Argus that there are no blueprints for what the ship is meant to look like: “What we were presented with in the warehouse was a lifesize 3D jigsaw puzzle, with no box lid.”
The timbers had to be cleaned of a clay surface first using fine brushes, water and dental tools, revealing details on the original timber that helped the team to understand how the ship was built.
The ship was given a boost in 2006 when the Heritage Lottery Fund was awarded a two-year £799,500 grant to clean and record timbers – boosting the number of staff from four to 15.
Each component of the excavated ship was recorded using a cutting-edge contact digitiser to create a 3D model. This was used to create a 1:10 plastic scale replica of the surviving part of the ship, ready to serve as a blueprint for the ship’s reconstruction.
Cleaned and recorded, the job now is to conserve the timbers. The timbers have been soaking in a wax-like substance called polyethylene glycol – or PEG – that preserves their cellular structure.
Once treated, the timbers are put in a giant freeze dryer to get rid of the water.
“Everything is soaking wet, its been wet for 600 years now,” said Mr Jones.
“If you just let the timber dry out on its own it will crack and warp and just destroy itself.
“When you pull them out of the freeze dryer they are like wood you buy in the store. It’s basically permanently preserved.”
But there’s a bottleneck – the machine can only take so many timbers, there are 2,000 and it takes two months to dry each load.
So far just one load of 30 timbers have been dried.
Drying is scheduled to finish by 2014, and it would take another three years to rebuild the ship.
But at 30 metres long, ten metres wide and five metres high, it is thought there is nowhere in Newport where the ship can currently go and it will probably need to be homed in a newbuilding.
Mr Jones said a space of “probably 20 by 40 metres” would be needed.
As well as conservation work, the team is writing a book on the ship.
The project has been able to establish that the ship could not have been built any earlier than 1447 – thanks to a small French silver coin found in a specially carved niche in the timbers. It was made for only two months that year.
“Based on some artefacts, we think it was built around 1450,” said Mr Jones, who said the ship was likely to have been built around the Bay of Biscay and came to Newport around 1467, predating the voyages of explorers such as Christopher Columbus and John Cabot to the Americas.
Mr Jones said: “This is the world’s only ship from this century that has been excavated, raised, cleaned, conserved and recorded.
Ships change constantly over time but we only have an example from every hundred years.
“To try to understand how they are changing and why – that is why Newport Ship is so important.”
Permanent home needs thought
A STUDY commissioned by Newport council – which this year is spending £290,000 on the ship – looking for a location to display the ship is still ongoing.
The council spokesman says finding a location is a “complex matter” and any recommendations will be thoroughly scrutinised by officers and members before proceeding further.
Labour councillor Debbie Wilcox, cabinet member for leisure and culture, said: “It’s such a unique find. It’s the largest, best-preserved, most complete example of a medieval ship in the UK.”
Council leader Bob Bright said: “Interest in the ship has been huge since the day it was discovered and I remember thousands of people queuing up to look at the timbers in those early days.
“Many people still flock to the open days and it clearly still occupies a special place in the hearts of both residents and those from further afield.”
However, he said, the ship is a national and international treasure, remaining one of the most important archaeological maritime discoveries in recent years.
People power saves day as timbers are raised and conserved
IT WAS the summer of 2002 when timbers of a large ship were found under the spot earmarked for the Riverfront Theatre’s orchestra pit – sparking the impassioned Save our Ship campaign to see it raised.
The campaign was so well supported a flood of e-mails were said to have jammed systems at the Assembly and Newport council.
The Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust, which was watching the excavation site, discovered the remains of what may have been part of a quay.
These were removed and underneath the timbers were found what further digging confirmed to be part of a large ship.
The hull had been distorted by years of burial, and although the bow and the stern were cut off much still remained.
There was, initially, no intention to conserve the ship – it was said that some advice was given to record the find and discard the timbers.
Bob Trett, former curator of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery and former chairman of the Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust, said the council was very worried.
“Every day they stopped work [on the theatre] and they had to. It was costing them a lot of money, he said.
He said the Argus was key to the campaign, breaking the news of it in 2002.
Viewings of the ship held for the public attracted thousands, and a small group handed out leaflets urging people to write to the council and the Assembly to emphasise the ship’s importance.
Jean Gray, treasurer of the Friends of the Newport Ship, said campaigners held a packed public meeting at the Dolman Theatre and the next day a group decided that visible action needed to be taken to save it.
“We started the roadside vigil the following day – 24 hours, seven days a week,” she said. “We had a table and a little canopy, we were there day and night.”
A petition attracted 16,000 signatures in just three weeks.
It was the early days of the mass appeal of the internet, and supporters were encouraged to e-mail the National Assembly and Newport council. Thousands were sent.
The efforts paid off and a grant of £3.5 million was secured by Newport council from the Assembly to lift and conserve the ship.
Timbers were moved to the Llanwern steelworks site, where tanks were built for the ship until the council secured the site in Maesglas in 2003.
Following the announcement of the funding the activists met and formed the Friends of the Newport Ship.
Over the ten years it has been raising funds from its 400-strong membership – giving around £35,000 during that time.
Councillor Charles Ferris, who is patron of the Friends of the Newport Ship group, said thoughts should now turn to where the ship will go. He said the venue would need a monitorable atmosphere and it would make more sense if it was a new building.
He said: “It could be a catalyst for a new museum for Newport. It could be something that incorporated the Chartists as well, to tell Newport’s story in full.”