Archaeologists Can Rebuild The Mysterious 15th Century Ship, The Newport Ship

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
August 18, 2023

Plans are being made to have the Newport Ship from the 15th century recreated by a Basque Heritage Group, the Albaola.

Medieval Newport Ship being excavated. Source: Wikipedia
Medieval Newport Ship being excavated. Source: Wikipedia

The Newport Ship is a complete surviving example of a European vessel designed to trade along the Atlantic seaboard in the 15th Century. In 2002 the wreck was found at Newport, and since then restoration and preservation have been going on. Plans are, the ship will be assembled next year in Newport.

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The ship is one of the most complete surviving examples of a ship from the 15th century. One of the larger ships, it has been estimated to carry a cargo more than 200 tonnes. In connection with the restoration dendrochronological studies were carried out which established that the ship had been built around 1450. It was also confirmed that the ship had been built in the Basque country in Northern Spain. After 1468, the ship likely sailed to Newport for either repairs or a refit. Around this time, however, the vessel heeled over onto its starboard side. Eventually, it became covered with alluvial clay, which helped to preserve the hull as well as a range of other organic artefacts like fragmented food stuff and remnants of remnants of an Iberian cargo.

Albaola Ship Yard

Albaola Ship Yard in Basque Country © Albaola Itsa Kultur Faktoria
Albaola Ship Yard in Basque Country © Albaola Itsa Kultur Faktoria

After this discovery was published, the Friends of the Newport Ship forged links with Albaola, a Historic Shipyard and Museum in Pasaia near San Sebastian. Pasaia was the main whaling port in Europe and one of the homes of the Basque fishing fleet, which sailed on Newfoundland since the 16th century.

A maritime Universe, Albaola offers courses for boat-builders, houses a ship modelling workshop and maintains a collection of historic boats and ships. With the building of historical boats as its main activity, Albaola, is an innovative environment where nautical craftsmanship and technology is recovered and showcased. The Factory is open to the public and has an international outreach.

Currently, the craftsmen at Albaola are involved in the recreation of a 16th-century whaling ship, the San Juan. This reconstruction is based on a ship found by the Canadian team from Parks Canada in 1978, which has for along time been the icon symbolising UNESCO Underwater Cultural Heritage.

Newport Replica

Model of the 15th century Newport Ship © Friends of the Newport Ship
Model of the 15th century Newport Ship © Friends of the Newport Ship

The recreation of the San Juan ship is scheduled to be finished in 2021 – 22. Already, though, talks are underway to have Albaola recreate the Newport Ship. According to South Wales Argos, Mr Cox, chairman of FONS says that the prospect of having a working replica of the 15th-century merchant vessel returning to the Usk would be a “wonderful sight”.

Funding, though, will probably be complicated due to Brexit. The recreation of San Juan has been paid for by both the Spanish and the Basque government as well as private funding. A recreation of the Newport Ship would in all likelihood need funding from both Spain and Britain. An obvious source for further funding would have been the EU, which has often been involved in such projects forging links across borders of the members of EU. This, however, is now an unlikely source of funding given Brexit.

Also, the group, The Friends of the Newport Ship, has so far not even been able to find a suitable location for at future exhibit of the ship. Although a display of the ship might be a valuable addition to Newport’s other historical attractions such as the main Newport Museum, the medieval Cathedral and the Roman remains at Caerleon and Caerwent, the search for a suitable location has been going on for years. Not yet advertised, it is expected a solution will be presented soon.

Thus, the dream is still alive. As of September 2016 nearly all of the ship’s timbers had completed an immersion in polyethene glycol. Currently, the timbers are being freeze dried in York to draw out all of the residual water in preparation for the eventual reconstruction of the vessel. If and when a future home is found, the plan is to assemble the remains of the ship as an open-archaeology project in Newport.

The ship is owned by the  Newport City Council, which is responsible for the core project funding, whilst The Friends of Newport Ship (FoNS) provide volunteers to open the Ship Centre on a regular basis and also raise funds to assist with the project and support the Curator where the Council cannot.