Geomagic software helps the Newport Medieval Ship project team to reconstruct 15th century artefacts

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Geomagic software helps the Newport Medieval Ship project team to reconstruct 15th century artifacts

In around 1468/1469 the crew of a merchant ship sailed their vessel out of the Severn Estuary that flows between the south west of England and South Wales and on up the River Usk to the Welsh town of Newport.

Here it was to undergo repair or possibly dismantling. Whatever the reason though, before anyone could get to work on her, the ship rolled over onto her side on the muddy shores of the tidal river and filled with mud. And there she stayed, 7 meters deep in the mud, until today. Now, nearly 550 years later, Geomagic Studio 3D reverse engineering software is being used to help bring the ship and her contents back to life.

It was during deep excavations for the orchestra pit of Newport’s new theatre and arts centre that the archaeologists contracted to record any interesting historical material that might turn up discovered the remains of a timber drain and a cobbled floor that may have been part of a quay. Thought to date to the 18th or early 19th century, these were removed and underneath were discovered some large timbers, which the archaeologists thought could be part of a ship.

Further digging confirmed that they were indeed part of the substantial remains of a 15th century merchant ship, which is now known as the Newport Medieval Ship.


The main dig around the medieval ship found in the original harbor area in Newport, Wales

Built in 1446/7, in the period often called The Age of Discovery, the Newport Medieval Ship was a large merchant ship measuring some 30m (100 ft) long at the keel and with an overall hull length of around 35m (117 ft). Probably built in France, somewhere along the Bay of Biscay coast, she predates the voyages to the Americas of explorers such as Christopher Columbus and John Cabot. Today, with 26m of her remaining, she is one of the best preserved and most complete examples of a ship of this age and design to have been discovered and excavated to date, anywhere in the world.

Even so, the ravages of time together with some damage caused during the theatre and arts centre construction works mean that only part of the ship – albeit a substantial part - was able to be recovered: some two-thirds of the starboard side, about a third of the port side and much of the internal structure. But this has been enough for the team of archaeologists engaged in preserving and recording her and her contents to work out the Newport Medieval Ship’s original complete hull form.

Recreating the past

The task being undertaken by the team now is to digitally capture the recovered timbers of the ship and many of the one thousand-plus artefacts found inside her.  These include wine casks, shoes, cannon balls, archery equipment such as wrist guards, defensive weapons, coins, ceramics and even fish and meat bones complete with butchery marks – not to mention rat and dog tooth marks!

Toby Jones, curator of the Newport Medieval Ship, explains that the aims of the project are to digitally record the remains of the ship, to build a 1:10 scale physical model of her as she was in the fifteenth century, and to produce accurate physical replicas of many of the artefacts found in her. These physical models will be used for educational and display purposes, while the digital models from which they are being produced will be used for archiving and publishing purposes.

The first task has been to digitally capture the ship’s timbers using a FARO Arm touch probe. Data from this exercise is being used to create CAD models and 2D drawings for use in the reproduction of the individual structural timbers and the planks that formed the clinker-built hull. These are being used in the building of the 1:10 scale physical model.


A Parrel artifact discovered during the dig and scanned for archive


A pulley, still very intact, recovered during the dig and scanned

However, while the touch probe was suitable for capturing the ship’s timbers, it is not suitable for capturing the much more delicate artefacts found in the ship, such as shoes, archery wrist bands, ropes and other pliable objects. So these are being scanned.

“The important thing is that we need to be able to capture the fine detail of the various objects so that we can accurately record and portray them as they actually are,” explains Jones.

This means capturing details such as the makers’ marks on wine casks, tool marks on timbers, chevrons cut into timbers to stop cracks propagating along them, rope marks on objects and even the remains of the ropes themselves, from which it is then possible to work out how they were made.

To achieve this fine detail requires very high resolution scanning, resulting in point cloud files containing anywhere between 5 million and 15 million points. Typically, for small items these files contain unordered point cloud data whereas for larger items it tends to be ordered data. Either way, they are then processed in Geomagic Studio, where the individual scans are registered to create a single point cloud model and where any holes left by the scanning process can be filled and any necessary fine editing, such as edge sharpening, is carried out before the data is automatically converted to an accurate, water tight, 3D polygon model.

“I’ve found Geomagic Studio to be the best tool for processing this high resolution 3D scan data”, says Jones. “I’m now using Version 12, which is fast and intuitive. In fact, although I’ve had no formal training on the software, I’m using it in a production environment and getting the high quality of output that is imperative for this project.”


Physical and Digital

The final polygon mesh models created with Geomagic Studio are output in either one of two formats, depending on what the end requirement is.

Many of the ship’s artefacts will be reproduced as physical replicas for display purposes, in which case, the model is output as an .stl (stereolithography) format file. This file is sent to Cardiff University’s manufacturing and engineering centre where it is used to produce an accurate physical model using the laser sintering process. This is an additive manufacturing process that uses a high power laser to fuse small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic or glass powders into a solid mass whose shape is defined by a 3D CAD model or scan data model.

These physical models include both 1:10 scale models of timbers for use in the 1:10 scale model of the complete ship that is being constructed, as well as full size models of artefacts for education and public display purposes.

However, another important aspect of the Newport Medieval Ship project is the publication of a fully illustrated academic book on the project. In this case, the polygon model is automatically output, at the push of a button, as a 3D .pdf (Portable Document Format) file. These files will be used both as printed images in the book but more importantly, on a DVD included with the book. This DVD will enable readers to view, zoom into, pan across and rotate individual images at will, giving them greater insight to what the items actually look like than any flat 2D photograph, drawing or image could ever do.

So, with the help of today’s 3D scanning and scan data processing technologies, not the mention the knowledge, skill and dedication of Toby Jones and his team in Newport, an incident that occurred over 500 years ago is being brought back to life to help 21st century man understand and better appreciate the past.