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Plan to rebuild 15th century wine-trading Newport Ship

Parts of a large wine-trading ship dating back more than 500 years are ready to be reassembled following painstaking restoration work, in what has been described as a ‘huge 3D jigsaw puzzle’.

Specialists are ready to begin trying to rebuild the medieval Newport Ship, after more than 20 years of conservation work was completed on the merchant vessel’s original timbers, first unearthed in south Wales in 2002.

The discovery has also given archaeologists more insight into 15th century lifestyles. It’s believed the Newport Ship ferried wine from Portugal to Britain, most likely into Bristol, among other cargo.

Other historical ships have been restored and preserved around the world, but the age of the Newport Ship helps to make it ‘unique as a piece of heritage’, said Dr Toby Jones, curator of the Newport Medieval Ship Project.

He described the reconstruction of the boat as ‘basically a huge, 3D, flatpack jigsaw puzzle’.

newport ship timbers

Some of the original timbers. Photo credit: Newport Museums & Heritage Service.

There are around 2,500 timbers, from smaller fragments to large pieces. Some of them weigh half-a-tonne each, said Jones, adding the plan is for Newport Council to first choose a site on which to house the ship before a team of specialists recreate the boat in-place.

Around a third of the original ship has been recovered, said Jones, who joined the project in 2004.

A rebuild is likely to take several years and it’s expected that the boat will go on display for visitors, possibly harnessing augmented reality to give people a view of how the ship would have looked in full sail.

Dating of the original timbers suggests the boat was built after 1449. Despite its Basque country origin, archaeological evidence points to the ship transporting cargo from the Algarve in Portugal.

This includes wine, Jones said, citing evidence found and also general historical records of goods traded at the time.

‘Wine trade was huge in the middle of the 15th century,’ he said. ‘We found parts of 100 casks onboard and we also found massive amounts of environmental ordinance, like nuts and seeds and coins  things that you can actually get a very tight location on. All of that is Algarve, Portuguese.’

It’s thought the ship most likely travelled to Portugal in late summer in time for harvest, before bringing back wine in casks. ‘The bottle equivalent would be about 225,000 bottles,’ Jones said.

Little is known about the type of wine that this specific ship transported, however. 

Conditions were probably crowded for people travelling with the cargo. Archaeologists also found remains of rats and fleas, ‘indicating that the humans on the ship probably shared their living spaces with a diverse collection of vermin’, researchers have said.

They said the boat met its end during a refit in Newport in the late 1460s.

The project has been led by Newport Council and partners, including Friends of Newport Ship.

Councillor Jane Mudd, leader of the local council and cabinet member for economic growth and strategic investment, said, ‘The ship is a significant piece of Newport’s history, saved by the collective power of our residents, the archaeological community, and the project partners.’  

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