Recently, four conservation students from Cardiff and three students from the University of Wales Trinity St. David (UWTSD) program in Nautical Archaeology met at the Newport Ship Centre to conduct a collections assessment under the supervision of Cardiff lecturer Eric Nordgren and ship curator Toby Jones. The aim of the three-day workshop was to assess the condition of artefacts from the ship, repackage them if necessary, and make sure the database is up to date.
The Newport Medieval Ship, currently housed in a warehouse in Newport, was discovered in 2002 in the bank of the River Usk during excavations for a new building. Archaeologists soon uncovered what is now the most complete example of a 15th century merchant ship. Due to the favourable burial conditions, the timbers of the medieval ship were so robust that the excavation team could walk on them while they worked. The excellent state of preservation also allowed for dendrochronology to be done, dating the construction of the ship to about 1450. Analysis of artefacts from the ship suggests that it met its demise between 1468 and 1470 – researchers believe that the ship came into Newport for repairs, but the cradle that was being used to support the ship during the work collapsed, causing the ship to tip over and take on enough water that it could not be recovered. However, since the ship was in an inlet of a tidal river, it was still accessible enough that most things of value, including masts, sails, rigging and timbers, were stripped for reuse. The rest of the ship was eventually covered with alluvium, creating an anaerobic environment that kept it intact for us to study today.
Excavation of the Newport Ship in 2002 (from Wikipedia).
All of the remaining timbers and artefacts were recovered and brought to a large warehouse for cleaning and treatment. If allowed to dry, waterlogged objects will quickly degrade, so everything had to be kept in tanks of water. These objects were then impregnated with polyethylene glycol (PEG) in order to replace the water and support the wood structure. Waterlogged objects that are dried without using PEG will shrink, collapse, and become useless for study and reconstruction. Once the timbers and objects were bulked with PEG, they were freeze-dried by the York Archaeological Trust.
The ship timbers were kept in large tanks of water and PEG. Each timber has a unique ID number on a yellow tag (image from Newport Ship website).
Water was removed from the timbers using a large freeze-dryer (image from Newport Ship website).
The PEG and freeze-drying process is nearing completion, and the small artefacts have already been treated. However, many archaeological materials are susceptible to damage even after conservation: metal objects can continue to corrode if humidity rises too much, and organic objects (e.g. wood and leather) can grow mould if humidity is high, or crack and break if humidity is too low. Therefore, it is important to monitor the storage environment (the Newport Ship Centre uses TinyTag dataloggers), and periodically assess the condition of objects. Since this is a long, slow process if done by one person, curator Toby Jones recruited students from two universities that have a long-standing relationship with the project. For many years, Cardiff conservation students have learned about treating waterlogged materials using wooden trenails and leather objects from the ship, and archaeologists from UWTSD at Lampeter were involved in the analysis of artefacts.
Metals – the first day was primarily devoted to assessing metals, including a variety of iron nails and bolts, and copper coins. One of the highlights was opening a box and finding two pieces of gilt copper alloy helmet decorations, inscribed with Gothic letters. The items were checked for new corrosion or breakages, and repackaged with new silica gel, a desiccant used to keep the storage boxes dry.
Copper alloy helmet strips, one of the prize items in the Newport Ship collection.
Wood and leather – the second day was spent on organic objects. Many small wooden objects were found with the ship, including bowls, combs, tools, and components of a water pumping system. Leather objects, like shoes and straps, are susceptible to mould growth – several pieces had to be removed for further cleaning. Some pieces of basketry and textile were also assessed.
Pieces of a leather shoe from the ship, now carefully stored in plastazote.
Schematic of a pumping system used on the ship. Part of the pump spear, including the leather sleeves, is still intact.
A delicate comb was repaired with Polyvinyl acetate adhesive during the workshop.
Faro Arm – the third day was spent experimenting with the tool that was used to record every detail of every timber from the ship. The Faro Arm is used to trace features on an object to create a 3D rotatable image with sub-millimeter precision. This technology was a useful way to digitally reconstruct the ship; the files were also used to make 3D printed models. The Arm also has a laser scanning attachment. We all tried our hand at recording a piece of wood, and then laser-scanned a few objects brought from our lab.
Scanning a piece of wood with the Faro Arm.
Different features of an object can be scanned with different colours. Beginners are equally captivated by drawing in the air.
Kim Roche scans a Greek lekythos that she conserved using the laser attachment.
The final scan of Kim’s lekythos, courtesy of Toby Jones (colour image by Kim Roche).
The goal of the Newport Ship Project is to reconstruct the ship using the preserved timbers, to make it a focal point of the Newport Museum. The conservation stage is nearing completion; the next step is to figure out how to safely display the ship. This project has the potential to be incredibly beneficial to tourism in Newport and throughout South Wales, but there is a long road still ahead. Even at this stage, the Newport Ship is worth a visit – you can visit the Ship Centre and the on-site gift shop on Fridays and Saturdays for most of the year to see the progress of the project. Donations to the project can also be made on the Friends of the Newport Ship website.
If you are interested in more of the details of the project and artefacts, visit the Archaeology Data Service, where you can download all of the specialist reports.
You can follow the Friends of the Newport Ship on Twitter and watch videos about the project on YouTube.
All photos taken by Aliza Taft and Kim Roche, except where noted. Dean Smith and Morgan Creed from Cardiff Conservation also participated in the workshop.