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The Newport Medieval Ship being excavated and restored.    Source: Owain at the English language Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

Medieval Wine ‘Supertanker’ Saved by Community in Wales

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A unique project is taking place in the United Kingdom to rebuild a ‘one-of-a-kind’ 15 th century ship in Wales. This vessel is from the Age of Discovery and is the best surviving example from this period. The restoration is also unique because it is driven by the local community, who have taken great pride in the vessel and are committed to preserving their heritage.

The ship was found in the historic port city of Newport in southeast Wales in the River Usk. It was found during the construction of a new theater on the waterfront, in 2002, sunk into the mud and silt. The ship was remarkably well-preserved, although some of its hull had been warped over time. It was found in what was going to be the orchestra pit of the new Riverfront Theatre. The vessel has become popularly known as the ‘Newport Medieval Ship’.

A Rare 15 th Century Medieval Ship

This vessel was revealed to have a displacement of approximately 400 tons and originally was over 100 feet (30m) in length. It was a clinker type of vessel, constructed of overlapping planks of timber, and would have been used as a merchantman. Bob Evans, chairman of the Friends of the Newport Ship told Wales Online , “in her time the Newport Ship was one of the biggest vessels afloat.” 

It appears that the ship was engaged in the wine trade, which involved transporting English cloth to Iberia in exchange for wine.  Evans told Wales Online that “she could carry up to 200 tons of wine in one voyage – that’s 50,000 gallons or around 200,000 bottles - truly a 15 th century wine supertanker.”   Analysis of the timbers indicates that she was probably made in the Basque Country in Northern Spain. A small French silver coin was found in a niche in the timbers that indicated that it was not built before 1447.

The Newport Medieval Ship being excavated and restored. (Friends of the Newport Ship)

The Newport Medieval Ship being excavated and restored. ( Friends of the Newport Ship )

Seized by pirates?

Painstaking archaeological and historical research has helped to piece the story of the ship together. It probably sailed into Newport damaged in some way. There is some speculation that it was seized on the orders of the notorious pirate the Earl of Warwick, who played an important role in the Wars of the Roses . It appears that while it was berthed on a special cradle that the vessel toppled over into the inlet and was left there, until it was found in 2002.

Originally the vessel was going to be left in the mud and covered over by the new theater. However, the authorities did not expect the intense public interest in the find. They demanded that the ship be restored, and a public campaign was launched that had the support of, among others, Sir Anthony Hopkins.  The Friends of the Newport Ship group was established, and it staged a vigil by the vessels to protect it. The Welsh government gave in and agreed to fund a restoration project.

Piecing the Puzzle Together

Archaeologists are working on the massive restoration project, in a converted warehouse now known as the Medieval Ship Centre. They used newly developed software to identify every plank on the vessel. The timber was freeze-dried to preserve them and removed from the mud. Just this year, the group working on the ship received two shipments of preserved planks, including the big-framing timbers, and this allowed them to begin reconstructing the ship in earnest.

Shot of original restored planks from the Newport Medieval Ship. (Friends of the Newport Ship)

Shot of original restored planks from the Newport Medieval Ship. ( Friends of the Newport Ship )

The planks are being slowly pieced together and the experts are recreating the 15 th century ship. Evans told Wales Online that “reassembling a 600-year-old ship from its original timbers is like doing a 3D jigsaw puzzle with 2,500 pieces, without the picture on the box.” It is important that the team knows where the planks go as they need to get it right first time. They are also working with Swansea University to create a cradle that will hold the reconstructed vessel.

Restored timber plank from the Newport Medieval Ship. (Friends of the Newport Ship)

Restored timber plank from the Newport Medieval Ship. ( Friends of the Newport Ship )

Impossible Without the Community

None of this would have been possible without the support of the public. This project illustrates the role of communities in preserving our heritage. Evans told Wales Online that “it is important to remember that the ship was saved by actions of the local Newport community and there is nothing like her anywhere else in the world.” Indeed, the city takes a great deal of pride in the Newport Medieval Ship and a local craft brewery has even named a beer after the 15 th century vessel.

The ‘Friends of Newport Ship’, according to their Facebook Page, “open the Medieval Ship Centre, to visitors free of charge” every weekend. The group hopes to find a suitable location for the restored 15 th century ship by spring 2020 and is then due to open to the public. A book based on the vessel and its history, the ‘World of the Newport Medieval Ship’, has been published.

Top image: The Newport Medieval Ship being excavated and restored.    Source: Owain at the English language Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

By Ed Whelan

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