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The merchant ship found below the banks of the Usk is offering up a mine of information about medieval life. Helen Morgan from Abergavenny Local History Society reports


It is more than 12 years since workers digging the foundations for the Riverfront Theatre in Newport hit upon the largest medieval merchant vessel to be found in Britain. And it was an accident of fate that the only part of the site requiring deep excavation  — for the orchestra pit — would uncover such a treasure. Finds since then point to strong Iberian connections during the active life of the ship, which arrived in Newport in 1468.

Although the ship was damaged when the theatre walls were installed and concrete pillars were driven through the hull before its discovery, work began almost immediately on recovering the extensive remains. Visible pieces of timber were labelled and systematically removed, layer by layer.  Many parts of the ship needed careful attention to avoid further damage  — for example, wedges were used to pry apart the frames and hull planking, and cranes with padded straps and slings were used to lift the timbers.

Nearly 2,000 ship timbers and 400 small finds related to the ship were retrieved. “Archaeologists mostly find only parts of objects, but it is still possible to learn lots from a single fragment,” says Toby Jones, who will be talking about the latest finds on January 22 at the Borough Theatre. “The objects tell us about the ship itself, the crew on board and also what life in medieval Newport may have been like.”

A 3D model reconstruction of the ship.

A 3D model reconstruction of the ship.

They include a piece of inscribed brass strip, thought to have come from a piece of armour, and a leather wrist guard. The wrist guard would have been worn by an archer to protect his clothing and skin from the snap of the bow string when he fired an arrow. This wrist guard and fragments of cannon balls suggests that the merchant ship’s crew expected  to defend the ship if it came under attack, as it might well have done from pirates.

Other finds include cork, Portuguese coins and pottery, two combs, a gaming piece and, most  significantly, a silver French coin that was inserted into the keel. The placing of coins in timbers was a symbol of good luck. Experts have dated the coin to the late 1440s.

Toby Jones’s talk at the Borough Theatre on January 22 starts at 7.30pm. Non-members are welcome to join on the night. Doors open at 7pm

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