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Archaeo News 

11 December 2005
Iron Age skeleton found under medieval ship

Workmen have discovered the remarkably well preserved skeletal remains of an Iron Age man beneath a Medieval ship buried in the banks of the River Usk in Newport , South Wales (UK).
     Tests carried out on the bones, which were found in December 2002, have shown that they date back to 170 BCE. It makes the skeleton about 1,500 years older than the 15th century ship it was found under.
     The Iron Age man is thought to have been about 5ft, 9in tall and very muscular, especially around the upper torse, probably right-handed and in his late 20's or early 30's when he died.
     Experts carried out radio carbon dating on the bones which were found underneath wooden struts supporting the Medieval ship as workers carried out an excavation of the orchestra pit of the city's Riverfront Theatre and Arts Centre on 11 December 2002. The ancient bones were examined by Dr. Ros Coard from the University of Wales at Lampeter's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, together with research student Alison Bennett. Both carried out work on the body.
     Dr. Coard said the body was probably buried quickly after his death. This helped preserve the bones as natural bacteria was unable to take hold, she explained. The skeleton, minus the head, was found underneath the wooden struts of the ship. "The Iron Age is known to be a time of ritual deposition into rivers and there are many archaeological examples of this. Interestingly from a British context, it is mostly the heads that are recovered. The Newport body is a rare example of body minus the head being recovered." Dr. Coard also added: "It was also noted that the surviving bone is remarkably well preserved with none of the expected and usual decay due to putrefaction."
     "This suggests that he died and was buried very rapidly in an anaerobic environment where the natural bacteria were not able to take hold." She said the collagen (the organic content of the bone) had also survived well, which will make taking DNA sample and testing a possibility in the future. Archaeologists have concluded that the man's body may have been deliberately placed in the channel. The body is not thought to be connected to the ship as it is so much older. At the time of the find, it was thought that the man may have died in an industrial accident as he was salvaging the boat.
     Kate Hunter, the Newport Ship Project Leader for Newport Council, said: "I never expected him to be quite as old as this. It's very interesting because there are not a lot of prehistoric bones found from the Severn Estuary and it all adds to the knowledge." Meanwhile, the restoration team of the Newport Ship, expected to eventually be displayed in the new arts centre, could be more significant than the discovery of the Tudor ship, the Mary Rose, which the 15th Century ship is older than.
     The team of experts working on the project have been using state-of-the-art digital technology to record the 1,700 timbers which make up the vessel. Ms. Hunter expects the conservation programme of recording the timbers and restoring the ship to take between 10 and 15 years.
     When the ship was first found, thousands of people flocked to Newport to see it as it lay in the banks of the River Usk. There were fears that the ship would be broken up and not preserved but a 3.5m grant was given by the Welsh Assembly Government to fund the restoration. The city council is continuing to seek funding from other bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund to continue the preservation of the ship. No other sea going vessel of this size and date survives as completely as the Newport Ship.
     Newport councillor Ron Jones said: "The overwhelming success of the three open days held this year shows the huge amount of interest the public has in the Newport Ship. This latest development serves to underline the historical importance of the project not just to Newport, but on a national and
international scale."
     The number and volume of the ship's timbers means that a new approach to archaeological timber recording was necessary. The ship's team has spent the last year developing a digitised three dimensional recording system, the first time this system has been used in the UK for an archaeological project. One of the features being recorded is the tool marks of the ship's builders, allowing the ship's team to work out how the ship was built. This knowledge is essential for the final reconstruction and display of the ship.

Sources: BBC News (5 and 7 December 2005), icWales (5 December
2005)

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