Riverfront Theatre and Arts Centre

Ship researchers get stuck into tar and pitch

By Robin Turner - Western Mail


Welsh researchers examining a historic Newport ship are to look in detail at how expert 15th century ship-builders kept vessels watertight.

European funding will allow research on the exceptionally effective tars and pitches used to seal and repair the hulls of ships more than 500 years ago.

The remains of the medieval vessel were found on the west bank of the River Usk, which runs through Newport’s city centre, during the building of the Riverfront Arts Centre.

The ship was originally about 80ft long and its watertight structure made it quite capable of continental voyages.

Artefacts found in the ship suggest it was trading with Portugal in the 15th century. There are also theories that the ship might have been built there. Tree-age dating has given a likely felling date of 1465 and 1466 for some of the timbers used in both its construction and its repair.

Maritime archaeologist Nigel Nayling has overseen the research and conservation of the ship since its discovery in 2002. He is now overseeing the European funded research into tars and pitches used in the ship which involves scientists from Cardiff University, the British Museum and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Mr Nayling, of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David said: “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 strat- egic and political importance for the developing European seafaring economies and naval fleets.”

The project, funded by the 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 compare the tars and pitches on the Newport ship with those from other shipwrecks and from the 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.