IT looks like gloop from the River Usk. But as Mike Buckingham finds out, where there's muck there's an historical treasure trove.

MUD, mud, apparently inglorious mud stored in 50 building waste bags may contain historical gold relating to Newport's mediaeval ship.

"And just as the old prospectors panned for gold we are going to have to sift through this lot to get it to reveal its treasure" Charles Ferris who has led the campaign to save the ship says.

Mr Ferris who is also a Newport councillor stands in front of unpromising rows of plastic bags ranged three deep on metal shelving in the industrial unit where remnants of the 550-year-old vessel are stored.

"And that's the easy part" he with a faint smile eloquently conveying under-estimation.

"After that the coins, scraps of clothing and bits of leather, fishbones, nails and items of lost cargo will have to be analysed, photographed and stored.

"The gold waiting to be discovered is the most detailed insight we can hope for of life in Newport and on board the ship at a crucial stage in the history of the development of sailing vessels."

When the timbers of what turned out to be Newport's mediaeval ship were first unearthed in 2002 they were thought to have been part of an old jetty.

Archaeologists including Mr Bob Trett, former curator of Newport Museum swiftly realised the importance of the find and persuaded officials not to infill the site.

Marine archaeologists worldwide were electrified by what slowly emerged from the Usk mud.

The hull of a vessel, 100 feet long, two-thirds intact and revealing a wealth of constructional detail began to yield its cache of secrets.

The timbers were dismantled and immersed in conservation tanks especially constructed in the building in which the bags of mud are also housed.

Painstaking research calling upon some of the world's leading experts revealed that the ship had been built around 1450 in the reign of Henry VI, would have been built for general trade.

"At the time she was first excavated it was realised that mud in the ship's bottom and trapped in between the double hull might well contain vital information" Mrs Jean Gray, treasurer of the Friends of Newport Ship said.

"What we have at the moment looks just like bags of rubbish but archaeologists at the time took the view that everything should be saved" retired teacher and Friends trustee Mr Jeff Brooks of Rogerstone added.

Neil Stevenson, the projects learning and access officer and himself an archaeologist said the importance of the ship would be hard to over-estimate.

"We are almost certain that she was built in South West Europe, possibly Bayonne, but that she regularly plied these waters and was repaired with timber from the Forest of Dean.

"She may well have sailed as far North as Iceland and would have been perfectly capable of crossing the Atlantic.

"What we have is a vessel built only a few years before Columbus.

"Just like any ship, all sorts of detritus would have gathered in the bilges over the period of perhaps 20 years in which she was in use.

"She would have carried wine, cork, spices, wool and animal hides and been the equivalent of a tramp steamer of her day.

"The first job will be to sift through the mud using as first a course filter and gradually refining the mesh until even the tiniest objects have been retrieved.

"When you are dealing with material of this age even the most humdrum of finds can have immense significance."

As an example, it is thought that at about the time the Newport ship was built vessels fishing the Newfoundland banks were landing and setting up salting factories.

The resulting dried cod would be both lighter than the wet fish and would not decompose.

Before the Reformation, when the whole of Northern Europe was Catholic and ate only fish on Fridays, such a cargo would have made huge fortunes for investors and shippers.

Seemingly insignificant finds of cod scales perhaps coupled with traces of salt or the remains of organisms would then become very important since they would point to a connection with this trade, strengthening theories that fishermen from Northern Europe visited America long before Columbus.

"It's not going too far to say that our ship is the mediaeval equivalent of a space probe" Mr Ferris continued.

"It stands at the beginning of a period of exploration in which ships played the biggest part.

"Any knowledge we can dredge adds enormously to our understanding of the period.

"Another interesting point is that the Newport ship may well have had more than one main mast.

"Because of her built-up stern and forecastle, smaller sails were almost certainly needed to counteract the effects of wind on her raised hull.

"This makes her very important in terms of understanding how sail technology developed."

The Friends have so far contributed £20,000 to the ship project and say about the same again will be needed to pay for the sifting, analysis and storing of artefacts retrieved from the mud.

Almost 10,000 people a year visit ship open days, with another 20,000 school visitors and a steady stream of experts.

The next open day is Saturday, March 28.

"What I don't think people realise is just how much this ship would have stood out in the Newport landscape" Mrs Gray said.

"With her bulk and tall masts she would have towered over the houses and been higher than Newport's castle walls.

"Anyone seeing her for the first time would have felt like we do when we see a