The World of the Newport Ship

On the 17 and 18 July, archaeologists, historians and enthusiasts of all things maritime were brought together at Bristol University for The World of the Newport Ship Conference. Demand for places was very high – the 105 capacity venue was sold out – and one of the conference’s convenors, Dr Richard Stone said, ‘We really were delighted in the level of interest, which was far in excess of what we had been expecting.’ He went on to say, ‘We were really pleased with how the conference went.  It was a fascinating set of papers leading to lively discussion, and the whole event had a warm and friendly atmosphere.  I’ve been really overwhelmed by all of the positive feedback we’ve received!’

For those not familiar with it, the Newport Ship was first discovered in 2002 when construction works for the Riverfront Arts Centre were underway on the west bank of the River Usk. During the pile driving for the foundations of the building, timbers were discovered within the mud, and an archaeological team brought in to assess them. It transpired that it was indeed of great importance – a medieval trading vessel – and building work was halted for the shipwreck to be carefully excavated, recorded in situ and dismantled for conservation. It took three months to uncover and record the vessel, three months to disassemble and raise it, and a team of 15 people three, painstaking years to extensively record and preserve the timbers. Since then a huge amount of ongoing post-excavation work has been undertaken, alongside research and interpretation of the archaeological findings. It is possibly the most researched medieval ship in Europe, and one of the most extensively sampled ships in terms of dendrochronology (dating timbers from tree-rings). Over 110,000 hours of work have been put in within the warehouse alone. To date over £8 million has been spent on the project, from a variety of funding bodies in addition to Newport City Council, including Heritage Lottery Fund, Welsh Assembly Government and Friends of the Newport Ship.

This has been the largest conference on the Newport Ship to date, and the first chance for so many people with interest and expertise on subjects relevant to the Ship to pool their knowledge and ideas at the same time. The conference consisted of eight sessions with papers presented by invited speakers and a series of debates and discussions, and with topics ranging from overviews of piracy and trade in the 15th Century to the dendrochronology of the surviving timbers, a huge amount of specialist knowledge from a wide variety of disciplines was available to stimulate and inform those discussions.

Toby Jones, the Ship’s curator, stated in his opening presentation that he was ‘…really excited that the conference is taking it a step further, examining the political and historical context.’ He reminded us that as well as the vessel itself there were over a thousand artefacts recovered from within its ‘remarkably well-preserved timbers’ – so well-preserved, in fact, that they found saw and axe marks still visible, even ‘nail maker’s marks pressed into the wood’ from nails that had since disintegrated. Notable artefacts included leather shoes so well preserved that they still had stitching, a helmet inscribed with Latin text, and an archer’s wristguard showing wear from repeated use. The mud in the bottom of the vessel has also thrown up huge amounts of information about the crew’s diet, including remains from 17 different types of fish.

Nigel Nayling, who has been involved with the Ship from the very beginning, as one of the first archaeologists to examine it after its discovery, followed with further archaeological examination. His expertise in the field of dendrochronology has really been vital in the project, and his findings into the origins and ages of the timbers have been a constant source of both enlightenment and bewilderment. Many of the Ship’s timbers are from the Basque region, although others are British, suggesting – although not conclusively – that she was built in the Iberian peninsula but had been sailing in British waters and undertaking repairs at British ports. ‘I’ve spent eight years trying to solve this,’ he says; ‘and I’m still going.’

Following the opening summary of findings from the vessel itself, there were papers on the more general context of shipping in the 15th century. Piracy, law and politics were examined by Dr Susan Rose and Dr Rowena Archer, who provided some very entertaining examples of MPs turned pirates turned MPs again – proving that some things never change. Merchant shipping logistics were discussed by Dr Ian Friel, who also provided a set of visual depictions of ships, with Professor Peter Fleming giving a Bristolian perspective of trade at the time. Newport itself was looked at in greater depth by Bob Trett (and I was glad to hear a brief history of that great Newport institution, The Murenger House) and Professor Ralph Griffiths, (who also could not resist dipping in to the piracy debate, discussing the Severn Sea).

The second day took on a more international theme with the Ship’s Iberian links explored at greater length. Dr Evan Jones from the Cabot project began with an analogy between 15th century and modern shipping containers. Arriving full in Britain from China, and returning mostly empty due to market forces, the cost in hiring space for the leg of the journey between Britain and China is relatively cheap – about a fifth of the total cost. Such market forces were similar during the Newport Ship’s lifetime, with mostly imports accounting for shipping trade; goods such as wine and fruit filling cargo vessels in places such as Portugal, and minor exports such as textiles returning from Britain. Surprisingly, the larger vessels sometimes only made the one lucrative voyage a year, to pick up the harvest trade in the Mediterranean at the beginning of autumn. Speakers such as Dr Francesco Guidi Bruscoli and Dr Hilario Casado Alonso, provided perspective from the other side of these trade deals, whilst Dr Michael Barkham looked at shipping and ship building specifically in the Basque region, where the Newport Ship probably originated.

However, it was the question and answer sessions that really started to link up pieces of information. An early question on the composition of caulking from the ship threw up a discussion on the use of ferns and mosses as opposed to animal hair; this in turn led to a discussion on the cost and availability of animal hair, known examples of its trade and possibilities of its origin. Another about navigation and pilots brought up a whole range of answers in terms of tides, river behaviour and transport networks. The summarising roundtable discussion evolved from visual iconography to silting up changing channels’ courses, to the treatment of foreign merchants by various port cities at the time.

One of the things that makes the Newport Ship so important – and unique – is how few examples of this period we have. The Aber Wrac’h shipwreck off the coast of Brittany is the closest, a clinker-built merchant ship, but it is only accessible to scuba divers for limited time periods.

Closer to home there is The Magor Pill; a smaller medieval clinker-built vessel, around a quarter of the size of the Newport Ship. It is an earlier vessel probably constructed in the 13th century. This was found in the Gwent Levels in 1994, and has been recorded and preserved, even made ready for public display, now sitting in storage at the National Collections Centre at Nantgarw. The Gwent Levels have also unearthed ‘probably the nicest Roman boat in Britain’ and a 4000 year-old Bronze Age boat: to me at least, all this seems to be crying out for a dedicated maritime centre, and what an asset to Newport it could be!

The few comparative archaeological findings of this period show a time of great change in many ways; in terms of construction methods, shifts from clinker to carvel, production of planks from cleaving to sawing. Guns were increasingly carried on ships to defend themselves from the growing threats of piracy. The political climate too was in a state of flux; the Wars of the Roses meant that land, privilege, wealth and all sorts of other resources changed hands frequently as the rise and fall of the houses of Lancaster and York brought different aristocrats into favour.

It could be said that the Newport Ship is now drifting in waters as turbulent as ever; the jubilance of saving the Ship following its discovery and the initial plans for a purpose-built museum have fallen away under changing economic climates and austerity measures. The £25,000 independent Collier’s Report, ‘A New Museum for Newport’, commissioned by the previous Tory and LibDem coalition council administration in March 2012 was never published under the following Labour-led council, and much of its research is now obsolete. The fifteen-strong project team has dwindled to one, who is only contracted until December 2014, and the Maesglas warehouse currently housing the project – already half the size since a lease of the other half to a private company – will be completely in private hands by the end of August. Newport council are currently looking at alternative venues for the Ship, but its future is uncertain.

Not that the Ship is without its supporters; Friends of the Newport Ship, a charity run by volunteers and initially started during the public campaign ‘Save the Ship’ back in 2002, is still working hard on its behalf. They are currently constructing the first phase of a business plan to look at the viability and sustainability of running a new museum as a trust, using Treasury guidelines for the economic benefit of all projects, and are hoping soon to present a strong case for independent takeover and running of the Ship in the future, since public funds in heritage have been squeezed to a minimum.

The warehouse’s open days are extremely popular – visitors average 200-250 over five hours, with visitor comments left such as ‘Excellent – will come back next year’, and ‘Very good – not aware that there was so much history on [our] doorstep’, many indicating that they had not expected to find it so interesting or to stay at the site as long as they did. It echoes a 2013 UNESCO report on maritime heritage’s benefit for the local economy which stated, ‘every USD invested in heritage increases the economic activity around the site by a factor of up to 12… Additionally it instigates an increase in consideration for heritage and local pride.’ This is not a factor easily measured, although judging from the outcry at the destruction of the Chartist mural, it is as deeply felt in Newport as anywhere else.

There are many strong examples of successful maritime museums, particularly in Scandinavia where much greater importance is placed on this area of heritage than here in the UK, despite the often-cited Mary Rose Museum. Stockholm’s Vasa Museum is Sweden’s number one visitor attraction, with visitor figures of a million a year, and each of those visitors estimated to spend an extra day – and importantly for the local economy, an extra €200 – due to their visit. Norway has just announced plans to expand the public sector Viking Ship Museum to three times its current size: ‘We also have a research and educational organization of high international standard, and therefore want to create the best Viking museum in the world,’ museum director Håkon Glørstad told newspaper Aftenposten. Located in Oslo’s Bygdøy peninsula, it forms part of a cultural quarter bursting with maritime heritage sites, including very successful privately funded and run museums such as the Fram Museum, dedicated to polar exploration, and containing the Arctic vessel used by Amundsen and Nansen, as well as the Kon-Tiki Museum housing the rushy raft famously sailed across the Pacific Ocean by Thor Heyerdahl in 1947.

Tourists who might not have made a special trip to Oslo for one of these sites alone – and cultural reasons are the prime motivator for nearly 40% of international tourism – will do so for this concentration of sites. I visited Roskilde’s Viking Ship Museum for a week-long course last year, with over a dozen other British students – but I stayed in Denmark nearly a further week – contributing not only to the Museum directly but to other local attractions, as well as through accommodation, food, drink and local transport costs. Roskilde’s speciality lies in its meticulous reconstruction of working Viking vessels, and the development of craft skills and boat-building shipyards, about which I could wax lyrical for hours. However, that will have to wait for another day, when further decisions have been made and a more detailed look at what a dedicated museum for the Newport Ship might and could include will be necessary.

For now, I will be watching the progress of the Newport Ship’s course very closely and, as in her working life, if all hands are on deck to help bail her out a little, maybe she will navigate these treacherous channels and make it to the end of her journey.