Resurrecting a Medieval Wine Ship that Carried 200,000 Bottles' Worth of Cargo

The 100-foot behemoth, lost for half a millennium, will soon be upright again—and gives a fascinating glimpse at the European wine wars of Henry VI's day

Resurrecting a Medieval Wine Ship that Carried 200,000 Bottles' Worth of Cargo
Recovering (left) and reconstructing (right) the Newport Ship. Green and brown represent components that were partially or fully recovered IRL. (Newport Museums and Heritage Service)
Feb 14, 2020

It was the final, decisive, devastating blow in the Hundred Years' War: In 1453, the French drove English forces out of Bordeaux, cutting Brits off from a most cherished resource: their beloved claret. In the face of defeat, plague and civil war, though, the English wasted admirably little time calling in shipments of the next new tipple to fill up their glasses. And those shipments, a recent discovery tells us, came on massive 100-foot vessels carrying cargoes equivalent to 200,000 bottles.

Last month brought news that the "sole excavated and conserved example of what was once a ubiquitous type of merchant vessel"—the 15th-century wreck dubbed the Newport Ship—will soon be reconstructed, upright and on proud display again, Dr. Toby Jones, curator of the Newport Medieval Ship Project, told Unfiltered. It had been lost to the tides for half a millennium.

Newport Ship archaeological dig
Easy does it: Crews at work on the initial excavation and preservation of the ship site; timbers were transferred into water tanks to prevent deterioration. (Newport Museums and Heritage Service)

In 2002, Newport, on the southern coast of Wales, was preparing the Usk riverfront for the construction of a theater and arts center when the timbers sketching out the ship's hull were rediscovered. Also found aboard: shoes, an iron helmet, a lucky silver coin embedded in the hull, remains of the fish and nuts the sailors munched, the fleas that in turn devoured them—and wine booty. "Parts of over 100 casks were found within the hold of the vessel, along with grape pips in the sediment of the bilges," said Jones. "Huge amounts" of a shrubby juniper were also found in the ship's hold to "provide a sort of mattress (called dunnage) on which to lay the casks of wine, protecting them from the rough seas."

Newport Ship
The Newport Ship in drier times (artist's rendition!). Painting title: "Final Resting Place," David Jordan (Newport Museums and Heritage Service)

Unlike the similar-sized (huge) Roman wreck near the Greek port of Fiscardo that was extensively studied and mapped late last year, or the S.S. Kyros dredged up around the same time, the Newport Ship wasn't scuttled by the capricious tides, or Germans, with a full load of potables aboard. According to Jones, the wine transport, which could hold 175 tons of cargo, was docked at Newport on the River Usk between 1468 and 1469 for repairs and refitting. Alas, its cradle collapsed, the ship careened to one side, flooded with water and silt, and sank.

Newport Ship
Premier cruise: Digital reconstruction of what the Newport Ship would have looked like with wine-barrel cargo aboard (Newport Museums and Heritage Service)

The British wine industry was still a few hundred years off in the mid-15th century and Bordeaux had just been lost, so who was filling the Newporters' glasses? "Britain had to import wine from farther afield, and there was a marked increase in wine trade from more southerly parts, especially the Iberian Peninsula," explained Jones, though the voyage across the Bay of Biscay could be treacherous. Plant material found on the ship, ceramic shards and coins all point to Portugal as the other terminus of the ship's route. And that juniper dunnage? It's native to the Iberian Atlantic coast. Researchers even found remains of flowers and berries in the shrubbery, deducing it was picked and packed in late summer—when the ships were being prepped to receive the coming wine harvest from places like the Douro.

Now, after nearly two decades recovering the wreck, dating the wood, cleaning the timbers, 3D-modeling the ship, drying, preserving and reconstructing the hull, it should be ready to turn heads once again at the reopened Newport Ship Centre later this year.

Newport Ship
Reconstruction of the Newport Ship arriving at its final destination, before it all went sideways (Newport Museums and Heritage Service)

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