Last week, Cardiff Conservation students volunteered to assist Curator Toby Jones in the final “wet timber” move in support of the Newport Ship Project. What exactly is a “wet timber” move, you ask? Allow me to elaborate…
The timbers of the Newport Ship were waterlogged when the ship was discovered in 2002 in Newport, Wales. Archaeological organics in aqueous burial environments often experience cellular degradation when exposed to these conditions for prolonged periods of time. To prevent cellular collapse of the material, which can lead to uncontrolled shrinking and disfigurement, conservators introduce a supporting agent into the substrate. This bulking agent has two purposes: to displace water molecules and support the degraded microstructure. A common example of this procedure in the conservation of waterlogged wood is the use of polyethylene glycol (PEG).
After the supporting agent (PEG, in this case) has been introduced, the artefact is frozen and then freeze-dried. The purpose of freeze-drying is to sublimate any remaining water molecules from their frozen, solid state to a gaseous state, thereby removing any remaining liquid molecules from the waterlogged wood.
Conservation of waterlogged timbers from shipwreck excavations proceeds in this way, but on an industrial scale. Because these timbers are so large, big tanks with tonnes of PEG are required for treatment. Therefore, removing these timbers from the PEG tanks and preparing them for transport to York, where the timbers are freeze-dried at York Archaeological Trust, is time and labor-intensive.
Over the course of two days, CU Conservation students from all year groups helped with the final timber move. First, the dry timbers returning from York were processed and documented. Each one was then placed in storage where they will remain until reconstruction of the hull begins. Once the returning timbers were sorted, it was time to get dirty! Only one final batch of timbers remained in PEG. The curator and volunteers eagerly awaited the end of this exciting chapter.
One of the most fun aspects of large-scale archaeological conservation is just how dirty you can get. After the dry timbers were safely in their stores, I, along with some of my coursemates, enthusiastically put on our thigh-high, steel-toe wellies and began wading through the final PEG tank. Each timber was carefully removed from PEG, rinsed with water, and packaged for transport. Before we knew it, the work was done and wet conservation of the Newport Ship had come to an end.
Volunteering with Toby Jones and the Newport Ship Project is always a fun occasion, and this was no exception! It was extremely rewarding to experience the conclusion of wet conservation of this remarkable project. In total, CU Conservation students provided approximately 130 hours of their time over the two days, about one-third of the total labour for the five day move. We look forward to future volunteering events and the continued work on the Newport Ship.
Thank you everyone for following our adventures, and subscribe to hear about the next one!
CU Conservation would like to thank Friends of the Newport Ship (FONS) for their support in covering travel expenses to Newport.
Further reading on the conservation of waterlogged wood:
Newport Medieval Ship Specialist Reports
Historic England Guidelines on Waterlogged Organic Artefacts
Historic England Guidelines on Waterlogged Wood