Restoring this rare medieval ship means putting 2,500 pieces back together

A scale model, kept in a warehouse in Newport, Wales, shows the salvaged lower part of the ship and what the rest of the vessel might have looked like. (Simon Bray for The Washington Post)

NEWPORT, Wales — It is a ship with no name, none we know today. How it ended up in this port town, buried under mud for 534 years, is a mystery.

But archaeologists have determined it is the most important late-medieval vessel to be discovered. Now the hard part is finding a forever home for it — and putting its 2,500 pieces back together.

Today the timbers of the ship are stored in a bare-bones warehouse in an industrial park. Inside we find Toby Jones, curator of the Newport Medieval Ship Project, a former deep-sea diver from Oregon, a nautical archaeologist with degrees from Texas A&M and University of Wales.

He opened the doors to the storage vaults that hold the ship’s pieces, each marked with numbered tab.

The first thing that hits you is the smell. It smells good.

The timbers — some as thick as tree trunks, others no longer than a school ruler — retain a rich earthy scent, still a little piney from the tar used as caulking. Knock your knuckles on the planking and you can feel how hard the oak still is.

“Normally, these planks would all be rotted, like a sponge, but they are not,” Jones said. It was the mud. Low oxygen. No worms. Only a shake of salt. “The timbers were waterlogged, yes, but remained so dense you could make a cricket bat out of it,” he said.

The original ship was at least 100 feet long, maybe 120 feet overall, and could have carried the equivalent of 225,000 bottles of wine. The shipbuilders likely constructed the whole vessel without the use of a single saw blade, employing instead axes and adzes, mallets and wedges. All of it built by eye, no blueprint, no paper plans.

“Look at the edges,” Jones said, pointing to the joinery. “It’s so sharp, it’s almost perfect, like laser cuts.”

He massaged the wood. “We think of the medieval age as a bunch of peasants. But the people who built this ship were master craftsmen.” Exact nail patterns. Complete consistency, mirrored port to starboard. “We haven’t found any mistakes,” he said.

The Newport Medieval Ship was discovered in 2002, when contractors building a performing arts center were excavating the shoreline of the River Usk, driving down concrete piles (17 of them right through the boat), before they uncovered what appeared to be wooden flotsam.

These were in fact immense timbers, still joined by thousands of wrought-iron nails: a keel, frame, planking, stringers.

One of the lead archaeologists of the recovery, Nigel Nayling of the University of Wales, was called in that very first day, when everything was still half buried in muck. “We found a boat,” he wrote.

For a long time, they didn’t know what kind of boat, where it was from or how old it might be.

Over the past two decades, the vessel’s hull has been excavated, disassembled, dissected, catalogued, desalted, bathed and freeze-dried for preservation.

Dendrochronology records (tree rings) revealed that the majority of the timbers were felled in 1449 in northern Spain, then hauled by river raft or ox cart, probably to San Sebastian, where it was built.

The three-masted ship was designed to ferry heavy casks of new wine from Iberia to England. It launched just a year or two before Columbus was born, and it sailed in the opening chapters of the age of discovery, of colonialism, of global trade, Jones said, as the Middle Ages leaned into the Renaissance.

The 1,000 artifacts found on the bilge — lice combs, a silver French coin, rat droppings, pointy shoes with curly toes, flowering heather, a helmet with a Latin inscription — have also been put under the microscope.

The crew — 40 or 60? Likely Portuguese? — ate oysters, pomegranates and salted fish, based on bones and seeds recovered. The sailors slept beside the livestock they slaughtered to eat on the weeks-long passages. They played an early version of backgammon — the archaeologists found the board game and pieces. They were plagued by fleas and pilfered wine from the casks, as evidenced by discreet holes drilled into the stores.

They were brave mariners.

There was no GPS, no weather forecast. Navigation was crude. They sailed along the coasts and across the famously stormy Bay of Biscay.

But this ship didn’t sink at sea.

“The ship wasn’t a shipwreck,” Jones said. “It’s not a time capsule like a shipwreck, which represents a moment in time.”

Instead, it seems to have been pulled into a shallow inlet on a high tide and propped up in a cradle for repairs. And then somehow it fell over on its side — and the repairs were abandoned and the ship was half gutted, with everything of value stripped.

The wooden cradle in Newport dates to 1469. So the ship sailed for about 20 years.

The surviving section of hull is so large and so heavy it will need a massive museum hall to display it — with temperature and humidity control.

It will need a custom-built cradle that will allow the timbers to be hung.

Jones explains: “All museum ships all over the world are collapsing under their own weight. You can’t fight physics. A ship in a cradle is not a ship floating in the water. Ships are not happy out of water, and so the timbers will deform around the pressure points, so we have to get it just right, and have to have a really smart cradle.”

The cradle would go into the display space first. Jones and a team of six would then spend three years reassembling the ship in situ, by fastening the timbers onto the cradle, likely in the same order as the original builders, starting with the keel, adding the planking and then the frames.

“It’s way too big to drive down the road,” he said. Also, he cautioned, “We are not rebuilding the ship, we are building a museum display that looks like a ship.”

He envisions cool video graphics to ghost in the missing parts of the ship for visitors.

All this would need funding, of course. Right now work on the ship is being supported by grants from the local city council — in one of the poorer regions of Wales.

Jones is the lone paid employee. He answers the phone, gives tours, publishes papers.

“She needs a rich friend, our ship does,” said Charles Ferris, chair of the Friends of the Newport Ship, who confessed, “I worry about her future.”

And if they can find a space and build a cradle and sort out all the logistics, how long will all this take? “I don’t see why in five years, in 10 years, why can’t it be done?” said Jones, which would mean he could spend 30 years of his life — his career — on this one ship.

He would like to go home to Oregon some day, he confessed.

“But I really want to see the ship put back together first.”

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