Dendrochronological studies show the Newport Ship was Basque
Around 1450 a large trading vessel – with a keel of 30 meters and an overall length of 32–34 meters – sailed on the town of Newport in the Bristol Channel Area. Built in 1447 it was dismantled at Newport around 1468-1470 when it was abandoned after a capsize.
Currently, under conservation, there (still) seems to be some confusion about what the ship looked like. On the frontispiece of the dedicated homepage, the ship is drawn as a kind of cog, while the logo looks more like a caravel; the archaeologists have apparently not quite decided yet. However, “given the known dimensions of the ship it does seems probable that she did have an upper deck and two small masts, one fore and the other aft, in addition to the main mast whose supporting structure has survived. The sails on these additional masts were important as much for helping to steer the ship as for providing extra propulsion”, writes the “Friends of the Newport Ship.”
Further, according to the latest presentation, there is no evidence of a “raised forecastle or sterncastle. Also, the end of the stern lacks, and it is not possible to be certain about the presence of a centre-line rudder (as on modern vessels) or a “steering board” (hence “starboard”) side hung rudder. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect that the Ship was steered from the centre line. Other sources (such as the Bremen Cog built around 1380 and a gold noble in the National Museum of Wales from 1412) show that European ships had centre line rudders well before the 1440’s.
As the ship was in dock for repairing at the time of its dismantling, the cargo of the ship cannot be determined, but it seems at least to have been carrying cork. A fact which falls well in line with the current understanding of the ship as a large merchantman sailing along the Atlantic Coast from Spain to England and back again with wine, spices, wool and animal hides. To get a sense of the size of the ship it might be compared to the Santa Maria, which Columbus sailed on his first voyage to the Americas. Her keel was only 18 metres, and she probably carried no more than a 100 tonnes; a third to a half of the tonnage of the Newport Ship.
When the ship was excavated, a French “petit blanc” was found within the keel embedded in such a way, that it was obviously not a chance find. This helped to date the ship’s construction to the late 1440’s as it was one of the 65,000 coins ordered by the Dauphin of France, which were minted from May to July 1447 in the town of Crémieu near Lyon. Due to this find, the ship was believed to have been built in France, in Bayonne.
However, for several years the exact building-site of the ship remained unknown. Dendrochronology did not yield the information, as the series of three-rings did not compare well with the English or French circles. Now, however, the mystery has been solved: the ship was definitely made in the North of Spain in the Basque country. A Basque origin had been suspected for some time, but it was only with comparative research into the ship’s timbers and those of historic buildings in Northern Spain that the new results were possible, reads the statement from The University of Wales.
Such a ship may be seen on two oaken stall parts, or benches end from St. Nicholas Chapel in King’s Lynn, Norfolk from 1419. In the unique carvings, both a fishing vessel with two masts and another with one mast may be seen. Obviously, the crews on these ships were busy with angling for fish in deep waters.
Salted and dried cod?
Maybe the Newport Ship was also used for some serious cod-fishing? When in 1497 John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) sailed from Bristol to search for the spice-producing lands of Asia, he found Newfoundland and fishing waters steaming with cod. When Jaques Cartier 1535 sailed the same route, he came across more than a 1000 Basque fishing vessels; presumably busy doing what they had always been about: fishing cod at the banks.
Unfortunately, the fish-bones found in the hulk of the Newport ship have so far not been studied. A good guess, though, is that they are cod. If so, at some point strontium analysis may even be able to discern where the fish swam, and enlighten us about how early Basque fishers in the 15th century strayed to the East Coast of North America. The Newport Ship has still a lot of secrets to keep the archaeologists busy the next many years.