Out of the Mud

In 2002, the Welsh city of Newport was rocked by the discovery of a wooden ship buried in more than 20 feet of mud along the river Usk. Contractors had been digging a foundation for a new arts center when they struck solid oak timbers. A plan to dispose of the wood and get on with the construction project met with public protests and vigils, says Oregon State University alumnus Toby Jones.


April 26, 2016

Artist's rending of how the Newport Ship might have appeared under sail. (Image courtesy of Toby Jones)
Artist’s rendering of how the Newport Ship might have appeared under sail. (Image courtesy of Toby Jones)

In 2002, the Welsh city of Newport was rocked by the discovery of a wooden ship buried in more than 20 feet of mud along the river Usk. Contractors had been digging a foundation for a new arts center when they struck solid oak timbers. A plan to dispose of the wood and get on with the construction project met with public protests and vigils, says Oregon State University alumnus Toby Jones.

So progress on the arts center slowed for a few months while archaeologists worked to retrieve what is now recognized as the most important 15th century ship in Europe. Jones, who grew up in Corvallis and received his bachelors in history from Oregon State in 2001, has become the curator of the project to document and analyze the Newport Ship.

“The ship is an amazingly well-preserved merchant vessel and is absolutely unique,” he says.

He will describe what he and his research team have learned about Medieval ship construction, trade and even 15th century forest management in the 2016 George and Dorothy Carson Memorial Lecture at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27 in Milam Auditorium. The presentation is free and open to the public.

The Newport Ship before removal of timbers from a construction project along the Usk River. (Image courtesy of Toby Jones)

As an undergrad, Jones was considering a career teaching ancient history when a trip to Europe caused him to change plans. He was spending the summer in a language school in Germany. During a break, a backpacking trip through Greece and Turkey led him unexpectedly to the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. “It was incredible. People were diving on these ancient shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean in this blue water,” he says, “and I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I could already dive. My parents had a marine biology business, so I grew up around that.”

After graduating from OSU, Jones attended the graduate Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University. In 2004, he had just received his master’s when he was hired to conduct a one-year pilot study cataloging and documenting the remains of the Newport Ship. Now, 12 years later, he is deep into the ship’s history through research on the more than 1,000 artifacts — seeds, pottery, coins, fish bones, leather shoes, wine casks, pollen, insects, plants — as well as the timbers themselves. He and his team have worked with specialists at universities across Europe to identify the origins of these materials.

The ship is as long as three double-decker buses and almost 20 feet tall. “The archaeologists were actually walking on the timbers when they found it. In most other ship projects,” he says, “the wood is like wet cardboard. Here it was like knocking on an old door.

“It’s such a massive amount of material and huge timbers, it takes time,” he adds. “You can’t rush the conservation work. You have one chance to do it right. Then it’s all gone. The payoff will come when we get it on display. Hundreds of thousands of people a year will come and see it.”

On a model of the Newport Ship, Toby Jones adjusts ribbands by eye.
On a model of the Newport Ship, Toby Jones adjusts ribbands by eye.

The ship may hold particular interest for woodworkers. The timbers show lines made with awls and axes where shipbuilders made cuts. The iron nails have long since rusted away, but the depressions made by the shipwrights’ hammers are still clearly visible.

The researchers have determined that the ship was built in the Basque country of northern Spain and spent much of its time on trade routes between the Iberian Peninsula and Britain. Almonds and millet and pomegranate seeds were abundant in the ship’s bilges.

The oak timbers also tell a story about how the forests were managed. The trees from which they were cut were grown and pruned in a dense forest to produce long, straight logs for construction purposes. “This is happening a hundred years before the ships are built, two or three generations before the wood is harvested, by people who won’t see any benefit from it,” Jones says.

Archaeologists discovered a silver French coin embedded in the keel of the Newport Ship.
Archaeologists discovered a silver French coin embedded in the keel of the Newport Ship.

While the timbers show evidence of highly skilled joinery, the builders also took pains to put luck on their side. Embedded in the beech keel, Jones and his team discovered a couple of years ago, was a silver French coin emblazoned with a cross. The coin was produced over a two-month period in 1447. Archaeologists found it when they were painstakingly cleaning the wood.

“The attention to detail is amazing,” Jones says. “They took so much pride in their work.”

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