News: General

Boyne medieval ship to be excavated

Excavation under way on the Boyne medieval vessel

A medieval vessel discovered by Drogheda Port Company in the river Boyne late last year is to be excavated, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government Dick Roche has confirmed. The vessel is thought to date from the early medieval period and was discovered by chance during dredging operations in November.

The wreck is in Drogheda Port and is believed to be between nine and sixteen metres in length. It is described as "clinker built", which is a shipbuilding technology dating from the Viking era but which was still in use centuries later. The vessel is lying in the Boyne shipping channel and cannot be preserved where it is. It is envisaged that the investigation and excavation operation will be completed by the end of March.

The Irish National Monuments Service in co-operation with conservation experts from the National Museum of Ireland and the Drogheda Port Company are to carry out the excavation and recovery operation. "Discoveries of this type highlight the rich and varied heritage we enjoy in Ireland," said Mr Roche. "The various authorities involved will make every effort to ensure the preservation of this potentially highly valuable find and its safeguarding for the people of Ireland, a find like this can tell us much about the technologies, trading patterns and daily lives of our ancestors and can open a window onto how life was in Ireland over a thousand years ago."

According to Port Chief Executive Paul Fleming, Drogheda Port was a busy trading port during the medieval period and should the vessel be identified as Medieval this will be a very significant find, the first of its kind in an Irish context.

The ship's potential importance to our maritime history and traditions cannot be over-estimated and it is likely that as there is no parallel ship to compare this discovery with in Europe. It is potentially much earlier than the famous Mary Rose, currently under conservation and public display in Portsmouth, UK. Only a handful of medieval ships have ever been found in Europe, the most recent at Newport in Wales.

The boyne discovery could provide the basis for the establishment of a new medieval maritime museum and conservation centre in Drogheda ultimately displaying the vessel in its original context. The conservation and establishment of the full historical context of this vessel will take many years and it will require the creation of a substantial infrastructure to manage the process.

Medieval Trading Vessel

Progress Update 14.02.2006:

The investigation of the wreck in Drogheda Port has been underway for the last two weeks and is still at early assessment stage. However, we now have enough information to give us an approximate idea of its age and possible significance. The wreck is the hull of a clinker built boat, single masted, about 12 metres in length, carrying a cargo that was transported in wooden barrels. The cargo may have included salted fish but it is too early to say for sure. Its size and dimensions suggest a coastal trader not unlike vessels excavated at Newport and Magor Pill in South Wales, by Kate Howell of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust and Nigel Nayling of Lampeter University respectively. It may well have traded on both sides of the Irish Sea and could date to the 12th/13th Century. Drogheda Port was a major Irish trading port in the medieval period, where large consignments of salted herring were shipped to Chester. The port also had trading links with continental Europe, Iceland and Poland as well as having an indigenous shipbuilding industry.

Radiocarbon dates due by the end of the month will hopefully confirm the age of the wrecks timbers. To date a site plan has been made of the visible elements of the wreck on the river bed and an exploratory excavation at the northern end of the vessel commenced this week. The excavation will inform the methodology for removing the wreck from the river bed.

As the vessel was discovered as part of a capital dredging programme by Drogheda Port Company to accommodate deeper drafted vessels and it is close to the middle of the navigation channel the wreck will have to be removed in order facilitate these larger vessels.

The excavation is being managed by the National Monuments Service of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in partnership with, and with full support and co-operation from Drogheda Port Company and the National Museum of Ireland. The excavation is scheduled to run for another 4-6 weeks.

If the vessel proves to be of the type and period that we suspect then it is a very significant discovery as we have very little tangible evidence for boat building techniques from the period in question. The broader insight it may give into trade and contacts in medieval Ireland and beyond is also potentially very important.

Sunday Times - 18.02.2007
Ship Reveals 800 year old trade secrets

A medieval vessel descovered in the River Boyne near Drogheda is an ancient Irish trading vessel that probably sank because it was overloaded with fish. Two weeks of study by archeological experts have all but debunked the initial theory that the vessel was a Vinking ship. But the latest discovery makes the find unique.
The Discovery of what is believed to be the first ever medieval trading ship found in Irish waters has created waves of excitment throughout the archeological community. The near perfect condition of the 800 year old vessel has only served to heighten anticipation.
Carbon dating test results due at the end of the month are expected to confirm the vessel dates from a time when Drogheda rivalled Dublin as a trading port.

Now, the 12th or 13th century coastal trader is to be raised from the river bed in a multi-million-euro conservation operation that could take years to complete.

The Department of the Environment's national monument service, the National Museum and Drogheda Port Company are co-operating in the recovery. The boat-roughly 12m(40ft) long and 4m (15ft) wide and its cargo are in remarkable shape, said Finbarr Moore, senior archeologist with the National Monument Service's underwater unit.

But 800 years in the water has damaged the cell structure of the timbers and the vessel will have to be dried out over a long period and the water replaced with a wax liquid to preserve the cell structre of the timbers. Moore said: "The crew could have been Gaelic Irish, they could have been Anglo Norman, they could have
been Viking descendants, we don't know. The Vikings (two centuries before) influenced boat-building in Ireland and throughout Europe generally, and their skills were second to none.

"The Vessel is quite fragile in parts. We may have to take some parts up plank by plank, and we may find other sections can be raised intact, but the conservation process will be lengthy."

That process will be similar to the painstaking operation, still going on after 25 years, to restore the Mary Rose, King Henry Viii's 16th century flagship recovered from waters off Portsmouth in 1982.

Although this is the only one of its kind found in Irish waters there are a few examples of boats from this period in Britain.

In the summer of 2002 the well-preserved remains of a medieval ship were discovered during excavation works on the banks of the River Usk in Newport, Wales. Another was raised from the Servern at Magor Pill in 1985. "A find like this can tell us much about the technologies, trading patterns and daily lives of our ancestors and can open a window onto how life was in Ireland over a thousand years ago,".

The Drogheda boat is a singlemasted vessel and lies about a mile downstream from Drogheda Port at Stagrennan in water that is about 5m deep at full tide. It was discovered during dredging of the main approach channel to the port. The mast step, from which the mast would have been mounted, is still intact, and whole wooden barrels remain in the hold beneath its single deck, some bearing the original band or markings of the cooper who fashioned them.

The vessel is clinker-built where the oak boards of the hull overlap as opposed to being built with the boards lying end to end. Softwood timbers form the frame of the vessel. Residue around the barrels suggest the contents may have been salted herrings.

Large consignments of salted herring were routinely shipped from Drogheda to Chester. The port also had trading links with continental Europe, Iceland and Poland as well as having an indigenous shipbuilding industry.

Drawing - Sean O'Dwyer

Brief description of morphology and condition of the wreck 22.04.07

While the overall condition of the wreck is relatively good it can be generally described as in-situ but not intact. Two areas of impact, which can be attributed to the recent dredging operations, were identified during the excavation. The wreck lies in a north-south orientation with the bow to the south and the stern to the north. Both, stem- and sternpost are preserved. Although planking is preserved adjacent to stem- and sternpost, the planking has come fully detached on all sides.

The vessel lies on its starboard side with the keel towards the eastern side of the wreck. Due to this resting position most of the planking of the port side is either fully gone or has collapsed onto the riverbed. Up to five strakes of planking remain in-situ on the port side, which are best preserved at the bow and stern end of the vessel, where their alignment is still quite steep. The starboard side of the vessel is much better preserved with up to 14 strakes of planking, which constitutes almost the complete starboard side. Timbers C.129/134 appear to be even the remains of the gunwale. A total of 47 planks have been exposed and recorded during the excavation. Condition and structural integrity of the planks varies, depending on their location in the wreck. In general it can be noted that only few section still hold their structural integrity. The reasons for this are two-fold. Over the centuries the weight of the wreck with overlying sediments and deterioration of the fastenings and joints pushed the wreck towards the riverbed, flattening its original shape along its longitudinal and lateral axis. This can be seen in broken scarf joints and plank strake overlaps along the axis of the vessel. Detached planking from frames, stem- and sternpost are also a result of this process. The second reason for damaged integrity of planking is the two dredger impacts on the wreck with impact 2 having left substantial damage to the surrounding hull segments. The post-ex plan shows how the planking overlaps and joints have been broken in the vicinity of the impact area.

The internal framing of the vessel consists of eleven floor timbers, of which five have already been recovered. Abutting these floor timbers were seven side timbers, of which three have already been recovered. Two mast steps were recorded during the excavation. A small mast step at the bow end of the wreck came fully lose during excavation and had to be recovered. The main mast step in the midship section rests on top of three floor timbers. All remaining floor timbers, except for the three underneath the mast step are detached from the hull planking and currently only held in place by sandbags.

The keel is not yet visibly exposed. It was however possible to expose it at the stern section of the vessel. Following the flat upper face of the keel a scarf joint between two keel-timbers was encountered between floor timbers C100 and C101. This scarf joint is broken apart to a gap of c. 4cm. This also confirms the observation, which has been made with the planking and framing timbers. The boat has folded open not only along its lateral axis, but also along its longitudinal axis, resulting in the breaking of the keel itself. The scarf joint at the keel itself may indicate that the keels is comprised of possibly three separate segments.

Dept of Environment\National Museum Image

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