The wreck of a 15th-century ship known as the Newport, found in the mud in Wales, as significant as the Mary Rose, has used tree-ring research to date more than 2500 pieces of timber found in the wreckage to the 1450s.
According to UK TV historian Dan Snow, it is one of the most exciting and important shipwrecks found in British waters in a generation” and was of “global significance and interest”.
Discovered on the riverbank, the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Swansea University have used tree ring analysis to date the timbers from the hull to oak trees felled in the winter of 1457-58.
Specialists have been working on the Newport Ship conservation project since the discovery of almost a third of the former wine-trading vessel and 1,000 medieval artefacts on the banks of the River Usk in 2002.
It is more than 100 years before the May Rose, according to the BBC and is part of a project to reassemble the wreckage piece using the original timber piece by piece, amounting to the world’s largest 3D puzzle and is the world’s most significant attempt to put an archaeological ship back together.
Once preserved, it will become the only 15th-century ship on display worldwide.
According to Ship Curator Tony Jones, the tree ring analysis has been instrumental “in helping us refine when the ship was built.”
“There are archaeological ships on display worldwide but nothing from the 15th Century, which makes this so significant and special. We have an actual medieval ship that’s unique.”
Dr Jones has been working on the restoration since the early 2000s and said the tree ring research is crucial in understanding medieval construction techniques.
“It allows us to focus on that 1457-58 period for historical research, but it shows this type of analysis has real potential to refine various parts of the construction sequence of the Newport ship,” according to Dr Jones.
“We can start to do this analysis on many of the timbers, and if it gets exact, we can start to determine the construction sequence and what timbers were harvested when and when they were added to the ship – so we can put dates on every timber.”
Published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology earlier this week, the researchers date the construction back to the winter of 1457-58.
They can also confirm that the vessel had a working life of 10 years before coming to Newport for repairs in the late 1460s.
Previous research has shown that the ship timbers originated from forests in the Basque Country in northern Spain and that the ship was likely built along the Basque coast.
It is the latest development for the project, which has been working to conserve and ultimately rebuild the vessel painstakingly.
In January, the team finished the conservation process of the 2,500 pieces of wood uncovered on the banks of the River Usk by workers building Newport’s Riverfront Theatre.
“We have a massive, flat-pack ship that we need to reassemble, and there are no instructions,” Mr Jones said at the time.
“There is going to be a lot of fitting, checking and disassembling and fitting again and again.”
Experts believe the 30m (98ft), 400 tonne, medium-sized boat was having a refit in Newport in 1468 or 1469 following a voyage from the Iberian Peninsula to Bristol when its moorings broke.
After collapsing into an inlet of the River Usk, its 25-tonne hull was found more than 550 years later preserved in the wet, muddy riverbank.
Dr Jones said the pioneering dating of the Newport ship was “stunning” because of what the wood has been through.
“The Newport ship has been through a lot,” he said.
“More than 500 years underground, gone through cleaning, conservation, soaked in wax and freeze-dried – and yet these isotope signatures are still in the timbers.”
“I wouldn’t have thought that was possible, but this analysis has proved that information is still locked away in those tree rings.”
“It’s great for us, it’s great for the Newport ship, but also means we can do it on other vessels and timber structures that previously didn’t date with traditional ring dendrochronology can now potentially be dated with oxygen isotope or stable isotope dendrochronology.”
Archaeologists plan to allow the public to watch them reassemble the remains when a venue big enough is secured to take the boat.
“You cannot build this thing then move it,” Dr Jones.
“You can only build it in its final position, but when it is done, it will be stable and has the potential for being on display in perpetuity.”
Newport Council, which has led conservation work, have started a feasibility study to look at where best to house the ship – with an empty department store a possibility.
“We’re keen to find a home which maximises accessibility for everybody as we want to share this great treasure,” according to Newport council leader Jane Mudd.
“The potential economic benefits are important too – and as more than 1,000 people attend talks on the Newport Ship, it indicates huge interest.”