In late June 2002, the extensive remains of a substantial medieval sailing ship were discovered during the construction of the Riverfront Theatre and Arts Centre, on the right bank of the River Usk in Newport, South Wales, United Kingdom. Prompted by public pressure, Newport City Council and the Welsh Assembly Government recognised the significance of the vessel and identified funding to excavate and conserve the ship.
The vessel was dismantled and raised, piece by piece, over a period of twelve weeks between August and November 2002. The Newport ship is the most complete example of a fifteenth century clinker-built merchant vessel ever found in the United Kingdom. The ship appears to be constructed in the Northern European ‘keel first’ shell-based tradition, in contrast to the cog and hulk traditions.
The ship was uncovered during the excavation of the new theatre’s orchestra pit. It was an accident of fate that the only part of the construction site that required deep excavation would yield a medieval ship. A sheet pile coffer dam had been installed in order to facilitate the safe removal of the soil, prior to the pouring of the foundation. A large portion of the vessel was eventually found to lie within the confines of the sheet piling. However, the extreme bow and stern sections of the vessel, as well as a fraction of the starboard side, lay immediately outside the walls of the coffer dam. In addition to the damage caused by the installation of the sheet pile coffer dam, numerous concrete pilings were unknowingly driven through the hull to stabilize the alluvial sediment prior to the pouring of the orchestra pit’s concrete foundation slab.
After the overburden was excavated, the visible pieces of timber were labelled and systematically removed, beginning with the ceiling planking, stringers, and bow and stern framing timbers. The keelson and integrated mast step were removed, exposing the remainder of the framing elements. The massive floors of the vessel were removed by carefully inserting wedges between the hull planking and the frames, and then sawing through the exposed treenails. These timbers were lifted using an overhead crane utilizing padded straps and special lifting slings. The iron clench nails that held the planking together were highly corroded and structurally weak, making the planking easy to remove by simply peeling them away from the soil.
The position and in situ shape of the ship were recorded with photogrammetry and direct survey measurement. There are two phases of photogrammetry, one with frames and stringers in situ, and one with the clinker hull and keel. Over 22 metres of the beech keel is extant, and had to be cut into six pieces for removal. All of the remains within the coffer dam were removed in this fashion and stored offsite in large tanks filled with fresh water. The portion of the bow outside of the coffer dam, including remains of the stem, was also subsequently raised in the Easter of 2003. A total of 1700 ship timbers (weighing approximately 25 tons) and over 600 associated timbers and small finds related to the ship were retrieved and catalogued.
The project management team investigated numerous methods of recording the timbers, and decided to use a FaroArm three dimensional digital measuring device, the output of which was captured using Rhinoceros software. A layering system developed by the National Museum of Denmark, was incorporated into the digital recording process. Part of the assessment exercise has been to design the most effective working equipment. To this end, the team has invested in a large mobile work station, complete with lights and electricity, to which the FaroArm and computer can be directly attached.
The use of the FaroArm allows for the rapid and accurate three dimensional digital recording of a variety of complex timber details and shapes that comprise the Newport ship. The 12 foot arm has six axes of rotation and is fitted with a non-marking probe tip. The FaroArm uses internal encoders to keep constant track of its probe tip in three dimensions. The point data generated by the arm is recorded and displayed as three dimensional (x,y,z) coordinates in the Rhinoceros program. The drawings that are produced using the Rhinoceros software can be rotated in three dimensions and oriented to one another, allowing for the virtual reconstruction of the vessel as it was found in situ. The three dimensional renderings can also be easily converted to traditional two dimensional drawings that can be utilized in the same manner as hand drawn records. Using the layering system, specific features (represented as distinct coloured layers) within the drawing can be selected and highlighted or removed so that, for example, only metal fasteners or wood grain is visible. Accurate direct measurements can be taken quickly and easily from the digital Rhinoceros renderings.
To date all of the larger pieces of hull planking, side and floor timbers, stingers, the five riders, ceiling planking have been recorded, though there are a number of small fragments (typically under 20cm in length) from each of these groups yet to be recorded.
Timbers currently being recorded are the mast step/keelson, knees, and possible deck elements found within the sediment matrix inside the ship hull. Once these timbers have been recorded work will progress onto recording the remaining small fragments, and various other timbers found within, though not directly attached, to the ship hull.
It should again be noted that these records represent the shape of the ship timbers as found. As with two dimensional reconstruction drawings, these three dimensional renderings will have to be manipulated in order to recreate the original shape of the hull.
A system of representative sampling for photography has been under-taken for notable features, such as repairs, inscribed lines and tool marks, on the hull planking.
In November 2004, an international team began an exercise to assess the requirements and times needed for the detailed examination, cleaning, and recording of the Newport ship timbers. Following the success of this initial assessment a successful application was made to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), and the project moved to phase two in April 2006, when the team expanded to twelve people, with the task of cleaning and recording the ship timbers by the end of 2007.
The planks were covered with copious amounts of tar, animal and plant fibre (in the form of caulking and luting) along with localized corrosion and concretion of the iron clench nails and roves. This was overlain with a considerable layer of alluvial clay. The timbers are placed on a special table using an overhead gantry system. A variety of cleaning methods are being employed, including brushing, probing with dental tools, and flushing with water. There are iron concretions packed into each of the rebates cut into the joggled surfaces of the frames. There is a negligible amount of salinity present in the ship timbers, and, as yet, no evidence of damage caused by marine borers.
Dendrochronological samples taken from timbers laid down in the riverbed, onto which the ship was heeled over, have been dated to AD 1468 and AD 1469. These suggest a precise date for the ship’s arrival in Newport. An apparent repair within the ship using timber from south-west Britain has been dated to the winter of AD 1465/6. Patches of timber applied to the outside of the hull, known as tingles, have been dated less precisely. A small group of tingles came from a single tree, felled somewhere in Britain between AD 1459 and AD 1483. The dating of these repairs suggests the ship spent at least part of its life operating in British waters.
Although tree-ring data from numerous hull planks have been matched against each other to create a mean ring-width sequence, it has not proved possible to match this against dated British or European tree-ring chronologies. It may be that the ship was built from trees felled in a part of Europe for which we do not have dated medieval chronologies. Research is continuing, both to identify existing ring-width data from around Europe against which to compare our evidence and to extract tree-ring sequences from other timber in the ship such as frames and stringers.
The dendro dates obtained from the ship timbers have been corroborated by the find of a coin placed between the keel and the stem post. The positioning of this coin is such that it can only have been placed there during the very beginning of the ship construction. The silver coin is a petit blanc of the southern French state of Dauphiné (near modern day Lyon). The coin has been examined by an expert from the National Museum Wales and is likely to have been minted between 1445 AD and 1456 AD. These dates mean that the coin can not have been placed in the ship before 1445 AD, and thus, the ship must have been constructed at some point after 1445 AD.
The coin has a dolphin printed on one face, with a cross printed and the motto “Blessed be the name of the Lord” printed on the reverse.
It appears that the ship was brought into Newport for repairs or dismantling. The vessel had been brought into a narrow channel and supported with a series of struts, which eventually collapsed under the starboard side, causing the vessel to heel over, leaving the starboard side nearly horizontal and the port side upright. There is also evidence that, after the ship collapsed, much of the structural timber still visible was removed, as indicated by the consistent chopped off ends of the framing elements along the upper port side.
There are a number of small repairs on the ship, primarily the use of many small iron nails to close cracks along the outboard edges of the hull planking and repair tingles. The mast step had extensive cracking. Three separate pump holes were found, one each in the bow and stern, and one cut through the keelson near the mast step.
A total of 63 frames were recovered during the initial excavation, with one additional frame being uncovered during the subsequent bow excavation. It is likely that several frames were destroyed during the coffer dam installation. Elements of 34 strakes survive on the starboard side of the vessel, while 17 strakes are extant on the port side. The overall dimensions of the vessel are the subject of debate. The surviving length of the remains is 26 metres, and an estimate of the ship’s total length on deck is approximately 35 metres. The precise length cannot be determined until the timber recording has been completed and the amount of in situ distortion (and loss due to the coffer dam installation) has been taken into account.
The entire hull, with the notable exception of the beech keel, is made of oak. The state of preservation is remarkable, with clearly visible tool marks, intentional inscribed lines (marking the joggle locations, lands, and scarves), and even complete preserved barnacles. The planks appear to be radically split, not sawn, with carefully hewn scarves and lands. The clench nails are driven in from outboard and peened over roves on the inboard face. The most interesting feature of the frames are the concave rebates cut into each joggled face, which accommodate the peened rivet and rove, allowing the frame to seat tightly against the clinker planking. During the recording process, planks with closely spaced grain and sapwood will be selected for dendrochronological sampling.
Future of the Ship
After cleaning, recording, and conservation are complete, the team plans to use the three dimensional virtual blueprint to construct a set of ship lines for use during the reassembly of the vessel. The size of the vessel necessitates the manufacture of a cradle arrangement with both external and internal supports. Ideally, the reconstructed remains of the vessel will be publicly displayed in a museum in Newport.