FIFTEEN years ago this week in 2002, builders working on the Riverfront theatre in Newport found something incredible. MARTIN WADE looks back at the discovery of Newport’s medieval ship.

IT was a find that captured the imagination of people in Newport and beyond, sparking a campaign that was backed by thousands.

While building work for the Riverfront Theatre’s orchestra pit was going on remains of what may have been part of a quay were unearthed. Near the top of the pit, archaeologists discovered what looked like a timber drain and a cobbled floor underneath some large timbers.

Further digging revealed that these were part of a large ship lying in an inlet, with the ship facing away from the river. The timbers were removed and underneath were found parts of a large vessel.

The hull had been distorted by many years of lying underneath the mud on the banks of the Usk, and despite the bow and the stern being cut off much of the ship still remained.

Initially there was no intention to preserve the ship, but the find sparked an extraordinary campaign which thousands of people backed to save the remains of the vessel.

Supporters held a packed public meeting at the Dolman Theatre and decided that action was needed save the precious find.

The campaign, quickly named ‘Save our Ship’, began a roadside vigil – 24 hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week alongside where the ship’s remains lay. A petition attracted 16,000 signatures in just three weeks with even Sir Anthony Hopkins lending his support.

Thousands of people came to view the remains as archaeologists worked on them. As they peered, fascinated down into the hull of the vessel, supporters handed out leaflets urging people to write to the authorities to tell them of the ship’s importance.

In those early days of the internet, supporters were also encouraged to e-mail the National Assembly and Newport council. Thousands were sent and the flood of e-mails was said to have jammed their systems.

The efforts paid off. Later that year the Welsh Government committed £3.5 million to the excavation, conservation and display of the ship, on the condition that Newport council would provide any additional funds needed to complete the project.

The timbers were moved to Llanwern steelworks, where tanks were built for them until the council secured a site in Maesglas in 2003.

Following the announcement of the funding the activists formed the Friends of the Newport Ship.

The ship was given a further boost in 2006 when the Heritage Lottery Fund was awarded a two-year £799,500 grant to clean and record timbers – increasing the number of staff from four to 15.

But where did the ship come from and how did she come to be encased in the mud of the Usk?

Still in remarkable condition, the ship is one of the best preserved vessels of the Age of Discovery, when ships were beginning to find sea routes from Europe to Africa, India and the Americas.

Some vital clues emerged which told at least how old she was. A small French silver coin found in a specially carved niche in the timbers told that the ship could not have been built any earlier than 1447.

Based on other artefacts found with the ship, researchers think it was built around 1450. They believe it was likely to have been built around the Bay of Biscay and came to Newport around 1467, pre-dating the voyages of explorers such as Christopher Columbus and John Cabot to the Americas.

One oak timber, called a knee, was discovered inside the hull and this was found to have been felled in the winter of 1465.

This clinker-built ship, with its overlapping hull planks could hold between 150 and 300 tons of cargo.

Once the timber was taken away, remains found on the site included a headless skeleton; more coins; an archer’s leather bracer; pottery; a comb; pieces of rope and remains of leather shoes.

The skeleton, which was also missing its lower legs, was radiocarbon dated to the Iron Age, some 1,500 years before the ship came to Newport.

The ship is believed to have been built in the Basque country with research into the ship’s timbers especially pointing to this region.

Experts from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and the Arkeolan Foundation based in the Basque town of Irun conducted the research.

Artefacts found at the time of the discovery hinted at Iberian connections but dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) provided the first scientific evidence.

This chimes with the fact that 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.

Newport City Councillor Charles Ferris, patron of the Friends of the Newport Medieval Ship told the Argus how the it came to be here.

“The ship was damaged when it arrived in Wales in the midst of the War of the Roses. She was laid up in 1467. It was owned by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick who was a notorious pirate and we know he gave passage to a ship called the Marie of Bayonne from the Basque Country, so our ship could have been the Marie.

It is possible that pirates operating under the Warwick's sponsorship may have captured the ship, but it never left Newport, possibly due to the Earl’s death.

The fact that the ship was found in a port tells that its demise would have been drawn out.

Project curator Toby Jones told how the ship met its fate. Attempts to repair the ship saw her put on a cradle structure: “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. “I think they give up trying to save it even though it’s hugely valuable.”

“Anything that was in the way of them working on the ship they took out. 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.”

This was the treasure which saw the light of day for the first time in over 500 years and whose story is now known around the world.

Next week, we look at how the vessel is being preserved and the future holds for Newport’s medieval ship.

Don’t miss more pictures in tomorrow’s Argus.