Case study
ethics and governance, quality practice

Ethics case study: The Newport medieval ship project

updated on 13 Oct 2023
12 minutes

This case study is based on what happened after the unexpected discovery in 2002 of a medieval ship in Newport, Wales (the Newport Medieval Ship) during the construction of a new performing arts centre for Newport City Council.


This case study is taken from the 'Ethics in community-based participatory research: Case studies, case examples and commentaries' publication produced by Durham University. This document supports the 'Community-based participatory research: A guide to ethical principles and practice'. 

Who: University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Newport Museum and Heritage Service and Friends of Newport Ship

What: This case study shows how a heritage project grew and evolved in unexpected ways as the nature of community engagement changed over time. It shows how ethical issues emerged and how participants in the project adapted and resolved challenges.

Why: The unexpected discovery in 2002 of a medieval ship in Newport, Wales (the Newport Medieval Ship) during the construction of a new performing arts centre for Newport City Council.

Where: Newport

When: 2002

Project description

This case study is based on what happened after the unexpected discovery in 2002 of a medieval ship in Newport, Wales (the Newport Medieval Ship) during the construction of a new performing arts centre for Newport City Council. Finding artefacts during building developments is not that unusual in the heritage sector and a find is occasionally the starting point of an archaeological project. However, finding a medieval ship is a rare and important occurrence. The Newport Medieval Ship project was unplanned and did not start out as a community-based participatory research project. What this case study shows is how a heritage project grew and evolved in unexpected ways as the nature of community engagement changed over time. It shows how ethical issues emerged and how participants in the project adapted and resolved challenges. The process was complicated because a wide range of parties was involved, including professional archaeologists, builders, public authorities and grant-giving bodies. Community engagement is now a notable feature of the project and this shifted over time from local action (the Save Our Ship group, initially involved in campaigning and petitioning) to the establishment of a support charity (the Friends of Newport Ship) concerned to promote understanding, conservation and the eventual display of an extraordinary heritage asset.


Ethical issues anticipated in planning

The Newport Medieval Ship was a fortuitous find. This meant that rather than being able to plan the research and anticipate ethical issues, everyone involved and/or interested in the ship had to react, especially in the first few months. The future of the ship at this time was uncertain and it was not at this stage identified as a research project even though archaeologists were involved. The archaeologists (including a nautical archaeologist brought in as a specialist) were working in the role of contractors, employed by the developer (Newport City Council). 

Ethical issues emerging and developing

Conflicts between the rights and interests of archaeologists, developers, local authorities and the public

One of the first ethical issues to arise was around who had the right, and indeed the power, to decide on the ship’s future and on what grounds? Should it be destroyed because it was stalling a £12 million development scheme? Was it important enough to save? And how would it be saved? In this situation the archaeologists – especially the nautical specialist – had a huge responsibility. They are the experts able to identify it as a ship (from exposed timbers) and importantly as a medieval ship, making it a rare and important find. This strengthened the ‘save’ rather than ‘destroy’ argument and meant that the new development had to be stalled. During this period, the building site was not open to the public and the discovery was kept confidential. Nonetheless, news of the discovery leaked out. The prospect of the ship’s imminent destruction led to increasing local disquiet and the formation of the Save Our Ship campaign, which petitioned, protested and appealed for the ship to be saved as a heritage asset for the people of Newport. The ship was seen by the local community as public property. At this early stage, during the period two to three months immediately after the find, relationships between the local authority, developer, archaeologists and local community were tense.  

Tensions were eventually alleviated once the announcement was made by the Welsh Assembly Government that £3.5 million had been secured to conserve, research and display the ship. This changed the relationships between the different parties, who from then on began working more closely together. The Newport Ship Project was born and participation and community engagement became the approach used in what was now becoming a more community-based action research project. This allowed the focus of the local community group to change from campaigning to supporting.  Thus, as a registered charity, its main activities are providing practical and financial help and raising awareness of the ship and its importance.

Disclosing confidential information: reconciling different aspects of a professional code of conduct

Another ethical issue emerged for the archaeologists whilst working in those early stages in their role as contractors employed by the developer (Newport City Council). Archaeologists who are members of the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) agree to abide by its code of conduct8. The object of this code is ‘to promote those standards of conduct and self-discipline required of a member in the interests of the public and in the pursuit of archaeological research’, with guidance provided within five principles. These principles stress the need for members to adhere to high standards of ethical behaviour, to uphold their responsibility to the conservation of the historic environment, to properly record and disseminate their research and to take due regard of the aspirations of employees, colleagues and helpers.

The archaeologists found that even when working within the professional code, the issue of disclosing confidential information was problematic. The archaeologists were, of course, interested in the ship as a source and site of research and new information; but they also had to balance this academic interest with their role and responsibilities as contract archaeologists. The code makes clear that members have an obligation to prevent the release of confidential information (as defined by an employer or client), yet also should ‘accept the responsibility of informing the public of the purpose and results of his/her work and shall accede to reasonable requests for information dispersal to the general public’. This proved a challenge during the early stages of the ship’s discovery and excavation, when contractual agreements constrained the archaeologists from being able to communicate openly with the community campaigners. The archaeologists spoke to the local campaigners informally as the nautical specialist archaeologist explained:

"The group (Save Our Ship) start a 24 hour vigil outside the site with signs, taxi drivers sounding horns, lorry drivers threatening to block roads – campaigning. So archaeologists are turning up at the site on a daily basis and talking to the group informally. Then shutting the gates. The relationship between the archaeologists and the group was very friendly, but we were not disclosing information from meetings with the local authority; we could only say things about the finds. But we would get some difficult questions from the campaigners about the future plans."

The ethical challenge here stems from the fact that according to the code it is the employer/client who defines what is ‘confidential information’, not archaeologists. However, in this case, it was the archaeologists who met the local campaigners on a daily basis and who had to decide what was reasonable disclosure and what was not. These tensions were resolved once the find had been officially made public and information exchange became less problematic.

Co-producing a book: acknowledging the limitations and benefits of different knowledge and expertise within a partnership

Another ethical issue came later in the project. Over time, once the ship’s future was secured, the project became more like a community-based participatory research project and a number of local partners were involved – archaeologists, the Friends of Newport Ship, Newport City Council and Newport Museums and Heritage Service. Public interest in the ship was high and there was increasing pressure to produce a book about the ship. The archaeologists were initially reluctant because they were a long way from finishing their research. However, it was decided to write the book and that the first draft should be written by the curator of the ship and the specialist nautical archaeologist (a heritage practitioner and an academic). It is not unusual in CBPR (involving a community-university research partnership) for one of lead authors to be an academic, especially if the article or book is for an academic audience. However, in this case the audience was the ‘public’ and as the nautical archaeologist commented: ‘the first attempt was too technical for the intended audience, it was far too specialist’.  Instead the Friends of Newport Ship took on editorial control and turned the draft into something more suitable. 

One member of the Friends was vital in acting as a bridge between academic content and public accessibility, aided by the fact that he had experience as a professional researcher. The archaeologists checked it, and the Council allowed the Friends to use whatever photographs they needed. The Friends then took on responsibility for publishing and selling it, with the Council printing it at cost price. The end result has been a best seller which has benefitted the Friends, the archaeologists and the Council alike. As the nautical archaeologist commented:

"The guidebook, now in its third edition, is an example of knowledge exchange and co-production. We wanted it to be accessible and popular. So with the involvement of the Friends the balance shifted to what the public found interesting. We realised that there are different ways of doing things for different markets and audiences."

The ethical issue here was about co-production and who should lead the interpretation and writing. Academics may write more frequently than other members of the project and sometimes assume they are best placed to handle certain aspects, without recognising the potential benefits of bringing in others.

Lessons from the experience

This project came about because of an unexpected archaeological find and, from a situation of conflict at the start, a community-based participatory research project eventually emerged. There are many lessons from the experience:

1. Evolving relationships: roles, identities and becoming a partnership

When the ship was found the archaeologists’ role was that of ‘contract archaeologists’ with responsibilities to the employer/client but also working within a professional code of conduct. However, as the ethical challenges discussed above reveal, the archaeologists were also mediators because of their daily contact with the local community. They disclosed and exchanged what information they could but felt a conflict of loyalties, brought about because of their responsibilities to their employer/client. At this time members of the local community group were campaigners. When the ship became public and funding for its preservation was secured these roles and identities changed and from this the partnership emerged. The archaeologists and the Friends of Newport Ship became more closely involved in community engagement and worked together as educators. The archaeologists focused on academic research throughout the project, but increasingly through the partnership with the Friends they came together in various dissemination efforts. This is where the strength of working with different knowledges and experiences became apparent. As the Vice-Chair of the Friends group commented:

Over the last few years in particular, the degree of cooperation between the parties has been an object lesson in how disparate parties can work together for mutual benefit.  Of course that doesn’t mean the future will be a bed of roses. There are still some tensions and probably always will be, but because the parties have shown they can cope with difficulties and find ways of working round them, the future of the project is much brighter than it would otherwise be. 

2. Limitations of professional codes

Values articulated through professional codes or standards can produce tensions for researchers bound by these whilst working in community settings. This project highlights the need for such codes to recognise that there can be conflict between different aspects and that there is a need for guidance as to how the professionals and other parties may go about resolving the conflicts and tensions.

3. Tapping the strengths of different participants

As the issues relating to the production of the book illustrate, there are challenges around the issue of co-production that once worked through can lead to mutual benefits for the partnership. By thinking about the different knowledges and experiences within the partnership and tapping into these strengths, this can lead to a mutually supportive partnership and help ensure its sustainability. The two key lessons related to this are:

A project like this needs to tap grants from a number of sources

Whilst initially that seemed to be solely the Council’s responsibility as owners of the Ship, the archaeologists and conservators working for the Council then recognised that charities had access to a number of grants that were not available to public bodies. The approach then changed, to one where both the Council and the Friends were involved in seeking grants for different aspects of the project, opening up more resources than would have been available to the Council alone.

Educating the public and maintaining their interest are crucial to the success of the project

The archaeologists and conservators, the Council and the Friends now recognise that they can achieve more by working together than by trying to work independently. Thus the Council organises open days, but the Friends provide guides and other support. Similarly, the Council employs an outreach worker for schools and the professional team of archaeologists; Newport Museum and Heritage employees such as the curator, project officer, project assistant and conservator give talks to local groups; while the Friends provide Newsletters, a website and promotional leaflets. But for all these activities members of both groups help each other.

4. Building on commonalities

Overall, the Newport Ship project has continued to succeed in challenging circumstances.  This is in part because all the institutions and groups involved have recognised that:

  • They have a common goal (the conservation and display of the ship for the benefit of the people of Newport and beyond)
  • There is value in bringing the diverse skills and enthusiasm of all together to achieve i,
  • They need to understand and accommodate the perspectives and objectives of other participants.  

As the Vice-Chair of the Friends of Newport Ship commented:

"When all participants adopt this attitude, ethical issues become much easier to handle, and that is probably the most important lesson from the Newport Ship Project."

Questions for discussion

  1. Apart from the code of ethics of the Institute for Archaeologists and the fact that the archaeologists were contracted by the City Council, no mention is made of protocols, agreements or procedures to support the relationship between the various parties involved in this project. If you were involved in the project, do you think some kind of agreement(s) might be useful and if so at what stage in the developing process would you introduce them and why?
  2. Try putting yourself in the shoes of some of the parties at the start of the project – the archaeologists, community campaigners, city council politicians, museum and heritage employees, local residents or employees of the building construction company. What interests do you think you would have and what rights would you want to assert?
  3. Whilst the City Council and Friends Group are reported as getting along well at the time that the case study was written, what might rock the boat in the future and how would you plan for handling new tensions and conflicts?  


Based on materials contributed by Nigel Nayling and Peter Hayward, compiled by Andrea Armstrong and Sarah Banks. 

Newport Ship

Contact Nigel Nayling, University of Wales, Trinity Saint David