1. The purpose-built Mary Rose Museum beside HMS Victory in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

A skeleton crew on the Mary Rose

This year the Mary Rose Trust celebrates the 35th anniversary of the recovery of the Tudor warship that made headline news when almost half of her hull was dramatically pulled out of the sea off Portsmouth on 11 October, 1982. Drying tubes have now been removed from the 32-metre-long cutaway section of the ship that rises unobstructed through three storeys of the purpose-built museum (1) beside HMS Victory in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Innovative video projections in relevant parts of the hull bring to life on board activities and, in the latest phase of research, the ship's crew members are being imaginatively reassembled from their scattered remains.

The pride of Henry VIII's navy, the Mary Rose sank during a confrontation with a French invasion fleet a mile from shore in the Solent. It is thought she probably heeled over when water poured in through her gun-ports as she turned, so her starboard side sank in the protecting mud, while her port side rotted away.

But, although her location was known, it was not until the invention of Scuba (the word come from self-contained underwater breathing aparatus) diving that the wreck could be fully explored by archaeologists. By 1979 the Mary Rose Trust was formed to undertake what remains the world's largest underwater excavation. Among scores of volunteer divers attracted to the site was Alex Hildred, an archaeology graduate from Sheffield University. She had learned to dive during her studies but, until then, her experience had been confined to land-based sites.


2. The Archer Royal, who has a reconstructed face, is one of 92 nearly complete skeletons found on the Mary Rose.

Now, the Trust's Head of Research, Ordnance and Human Remains, Dr Hildred has lost none of her enthusiasm for the project. What really fascinates her is the historical range of the ship. 'When she was launched in 1511,' she explains, 'she was the last of the medieval period, and when she sank 34 years later, she had entered the modern era with cannon and lidded gun-ports cut in her sides.'

Medieval weaponry rcovered from the Mary Rose included: longbows (172 were recovered, with 2303 complete arrows, 7834 including fragments), gunpowder, 78 cannon and handguns. 'We didn't know that cast bronze muzzle-loading cannons and wrought-iron breech-loading guns were used at the same time,' says Dr Hildred, who oversaw the authentic reconstruction of cannon at the John Taylor Bell Foundry in Loughborough, which was then trialled at the MOD range in Shoeburyness.

Many artefacts from that era did not survive on land, and there is an extraordinary diversity of material on display, from giant cooking cauldrons to personal possessions, such as a muiscal instrument called a dou├žaine, similiar in sound to an oboe, and the only one found anywhere in the world. With advancing conservation, knowledge is shared abroad, particularly with the Swedish ship Vasa, built more than a century after Mary Rose and salvaged in 1961.


3. The skeleton of the ship's dog, who is nicknamed Hatch.

'Marine archaeologists are a small community,' Dr Hildred says, 'we all know each other.'

Facial reconstructions of eight of the crew, including the cook, the Archer Royal (2) and the Master Gunner, help to breathe life into the museum show cases. Of around 500 crew, only 35 survived. With advances in DNA-testing and isotope analysis, the challenge is to find out more about what they were like and where they were from. '

We have 92 partially reconstructed skeletons,' says Dr Hildred, 'yet we have 179 skulls.' Dr Garry Scarlett, a DNA expert from Portsmouth University, is working with Dr Hildred and the Trust to try to establish to whom the bones belong. One success he has already had is with the ship's dog, dubbed Hatch, whose skeleton (3) is now on display. Analysis shows that he may have been a cross-between a terrier and whippet and was, no doubt, an efficient rat-catcher on board the Mary Rose.

(To find out more visit www.maryrose.org)
Roger Williams



<back