The Newport Ship is at the heart of a new collaboration that gets underway this week between the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, the British Museum and Cardiff University. European funding will allow new research on what kept the ship watertight: the tars and pitches used to seal and repair the hull of the 15th century sailing vessel which was discovered off the southern coast of Wales in 2002.
Tars and pitches are black sticky substances produced by heating wood. They have an ancient history of use as all-purpose waterproofing agents and adhesives. In medieval times their role in ship building and maintenance led them to acquire vital strategic and political importance for the developing European seafaring economies and naval fleets.
This project, funded by the prestigious Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship scheme, will bring French expert Dr Pauline Burger to the UK for two years. She will use analytical chemistry techniques and experimental modelling to work out what kinds of tar were used on the ship, how they were made and where they came from. She will also investigate how they have been affected by the water-logged environment that preserved the ships’ timbers. She will compare the tars and pitches on the Newport ship will those from other shipwrecks and from the rich collections of the British Museum where tars and pitches occur on objects as varied as ancient Greek amphorae, Egyptian sarcophagi and Iron Age harness fittings.
Rebecca Stacey, project leader at the British Museum explains the importance of the work: “Thanks to previous studies we know quite a lot about how the process of production influences the chemistry of pitches and tars but much less is understood about how they change under different archaeological conditions. This work is vital to enable us to unlock the stories that these unsung substances have to tell about museum objects and to ensure that we give them the best possible care in museum collections.”
Maritime archaeologist Nigel Nayling (University of Wales Trinity Saint David) has overseen the research and conservation of the Newport Ship since its discovery in 2002 and describes the project: “This is the first systematic study to map the use of tars and pitches over a whole vessel. Knowledge of the origin and manufacture of these materials is crucial to fully understand the construction and repair of the ship and also offers us the chance to examine the economics behind the use of these substances in the shipyards of medieval Europe.”
The first project meeting will take place at the Newport Ship Centre in Newport on Monday 11 October 2010.