In June 2002, a 15th-century merchant vessel now known as ‘the Newport ship’ was found during excavations in advance of a new arts centre in Newport, on the western bank of the river Usk (see CA 181 and 184). This January, conservation of the roughly 2,500 timbers recovered from the wreck was completed (pictured below) – a process that took 14 years, with groups of timbers being conserved one batch at a time (some at the York Archaeological Trust and others at the Mary Rose Museum – the only two places in Britain that have the necessary freeze-drying equipment).
The next phase of the project involves the ship’s reassembly. This task has never been done on an archaeological ship of this size, as previously found large examples, such as Mary Rose and Vasa, were conserved as intact structures. With no instruction manual to guide the work, it is expected that the reconstruction could take several years. Although the project curator, Toby Jones, and his team have the detailed plans of the ship as it was found in situ, the ship is unusual in that it foundered while at dock, sometime in the late 1460s. After attempts to refloat the vessel at the time were unsuccessful, parts of the ship that were still above the alluvial clay were salvaged, leaving what remained of the upper half to collapse down on to itself, creating an even more complex puzzle.
The team must also consider the best way to display the ship’s remains. Other recovered wrecks have shown that even the best-conserved examples have a problem with degradation, with the wood losing its structural integrity over time. This means that the best way to keep the Newport ship lasting well into the future is to incorporate a comprehensive support system into the reconstruction. To achieve this, the Newport ship team is working with Swansea University to develop a custom-made integrated structure to fully brace the ship.
While the museum team is working on the intricacies of the reconstruction, Newport City Council has the job of finding the best place to display it. Only once a suitable, climate-controlled exhibition space has been built can the full reassembly be done. It is hoped that the public will be able to view this final stage of the project.