The Newport Medieval Ship

Thu 3rd Sep

Seafaring and Iberian trade in the fifteenth century

Talk on The Newport Medieval Ship by Professor Nigel Nayling from the University of Wales Trinity St David in Lampeter.

The talk was well attended with a engaging and informative lecture delivered by Prof. Nigel Nayling, during which he described the discovery, conservation and digital reconstruction of the fifteenth century vessel, the ‘Newport Ship’, uncovered on the site of the Riverfront Theatre in Newport in 2002.

Two things about the ship are particularly striking: the rarity of the find – it is the most complete surviving example of a fifteenth century merchant vessel trading along the Atlantic seaboard – and how much can be learned or deduced about all aspects of it, given a wide range of specialists and techniques, and detailed analysis of everything from the dates of timbers to the identification of herbs and grains.

Unusually, it seems that the ship was simply abandoned at the end of its life, around 1470, on the banks of the Usk, at the south-east corner of the medieval walled port. Its upper parts were dismantled and stripped of valuable components. The rest was left to decay, and the bottom timbers, along with what had collapsed into them from above, were soon sealed in anaerobic mud, so preserving organic and other material that would otherwise have vanished.

Dendrochronological analysis shows that the ship was built around 1450, probably in the Basque country. The strong hull was constructed from oak (with a beech keel) using the overlapping-timber lapstrake or clinker system, an age-old method soon to be superseded by the carvel method. Its timbers, about 2,000 in all, were removed and recorded, using 3D cameras, and are now being conserved, so that at some future date the ship might be displayed. Though only the bottom of the ship has survived in good condition, illustrations and other non-archaeological sources have allowed scholars to reconstruct with some confidence the shape and appearance of the complete vessel.

Without doubt the ship was a large merchant vessel, about 100 feet long, with a very broad beam. It was capable of carrying up to 200 tons of cargo and probably traded, in all kinds of commodity, between ports on the Severn estuary and ports in south-west France and on the north coast of Iberia.

Some of the remarkable finds from the ship include a 1447 French coin deliberately embedded into the keel of the ship as a talisman, part of a water pump, personal items like shoes and combs, remains of fleas, lice and beetles, and traces of foodstuffs – not only common items like fish and chickens but also more exotic foods like pomegranates, figs and wines from Mediterranean areas, all highly prized in Britain.

The ship is still in the course of conservation. Prof. Nayling was asked about its future. He acknowledged that funds were very difficult to acquire in the current climate, but his hope was that when conservation was complete the ship could be displayed in public, perhaps as part of a broader exhibition of shipping through the ages in the Newport area.


Professor Nayling is a field archaeologist with particular specialism in maritime and nautical archaeology. Among other appointments, he is co-curator of the medieval ship for Newport Museum & Heritage Service.

For over 10 years, since the discovery of the ship, he and his colleagues have been engaged in its rescue, research and museum interpretation.

He described how the ship was found, 5 metres deep in the mud of the river Usk, during the building of a theatre. The upper part of the ship had been removed at an earlier date, but still thousands of timbers and many artefacts remained, preserved in clay and river mud. The ship was clinker-built, indicating that it was late medieval, but earlier than the Mary Rose. A coin found embedded in the keel timbers, probably as a talisman, was dated to May to June 1447.

The ship was deconstructed and removed from its resting place, and the process began of preservation and recording of everything. From the measurements, 3-D printing reproduced each piece of timber. These were assembled to form a replica which demonstrated how the original hull performed at sea.

Artefacts found in the ship gave further information. Wooden rings and blocks which had fallen from the rigging were rare finds; fragments of an ancient pump showed how the original worked. Archaeologists could compare the actual finds with pictures and reconstructions of other vessels to form a hypothesis of how the ship looked, how and where it sailed and what it might have carried. Dendrochronology (study of tree rings to date wood) indicated the wood came from northern Europe, and no earlier than 1450. Analysis of tar used in areas of original construction found it was made from trees growing on hills in the Basque area of northern Spain, while tar used in later repairs originated from Mediterranean countries.

Some artefacts such as shoes and a comb probably belonged to the crew. Domestic items were no doubt connected with their food: pottery bowls from the Lisbon area, wooden bowls, cork – again from Portugal, chicken, pork and fish bones. Some items suggested fighting or defence: stone shot, a wrist guard used by archers, metal which might be fragments of a helmet. Piracy was common at the time, and also resistance from port authorities to foreign shipping. Other artefacts were more probably related to cargo: fragments of wine casks, small wooden wedges used to prevent casks from rolling about.

Analysis of mud and sediment revealed more: lice, fleas from humans and animals, wood-boring insects and various beetles, even human excrement. It also gave hints about the cargo: plant material used for dunnage (soft bedding to cushion wine casks etc.) showed fragments of heather and juniper from south-west Portugal; there were also various fruit pips, nuts, traces of herbs and grain.

All the information thus gained suggested the vessel was engaged in the busy Atlantic European trade, sailing between Britain and even further north, France, Spain, Portugal, and Mediterranean countries during the late medieval period.

Nigel explained how, since Britain lost its lands in Gascony in 1453, it replaced its imports of Gascon wine and exotic fruits with Portuguese wine, and figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates, almonds and other sweet foodstuffs from Iberian and Mediterranean countries. Ships sailed the Atlantic catching fish, especially cod from the northern seas, and carried cargoes of wool cloth, pottery and other products from Britain. Sailors were already using devices such as the sand glass and knotted rope to measure nautical speeds, and lead weighted plumb lines to measure water depth. Handbooks were published giving directions for navigating distances, recognising coastlines and finding harbours, bays and inlets for safe shelter.

As well as giving a vivid account of the finding and rescue of the wreck as it now is, Nigel brought the ship - as it was - back to life in this fascinating talk, bringing together all its elements to tell a story of nautical life and trading over 500 years ago.

 To find out more visit Newport Ship on the Newport Museums & Heritage Service and The Friends of the Newport Ship




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