Wednesday, February 09, 2005


"Mary Rose" mud on the move as museum conserves collection


24 Hour Museum
By Emily Sands
February 08, 2005

Silt collected from the wreck of the Mary Rose.
When analysed it can hold clues about life on board.
Photo: Emily Sands. © 24 Hour Museum.

Silt samples taken from the Mary Rose will be re-housed, and rescued artefacts stored in more accessible locations, thanks to funding from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Museum Development Service and the Designated Challenge Fund.

The Mary Rose, at Portsmouth Harbour, is the only 16th century warship on display anywhere in the world. Built between 1509 and 1511, she was one of the first ships able to fire a broadside, and was a firm favourite of King Henry VIII.

After a long and successful career, she sank during an engagement with the French fleet in 1545. Her rediscovery and raising were seminal events in the history of nautical archaeology.

The silt which filled the hull of the Mary Rose soon after she sank has preserved many minute clues to life on board.
Divers and archaeologists took silt samples from interesting deposits or material, and of fragile items, both underwater, and in post excavation. Seemingly ‘just mud’ at first glance, these samples were analysed to give evidence of hygiene, health and diet on the ship at the time she sank.

"Initial examination of the silt is carried out through a painstaking process – sieves are stacked with the mesh getting finer and finer as they go down," said Andrew Elkerton, Collections Manager at the Mary Rose. "Even the liquid left at the end of the process is kept, as that can be examined too. We don’t want to miss a thing."

Straw found in silt samples on the wreck of the Mary Rose.
Photo: Emily Sands. © 24 Hour Museum.

This time-consuming work has been rewarded by finds of insect remains, seeds and grasses. Andrew Elkerton explained: "The bones of an immature rat and a small dog were found, as were provisions in the form of butchered meat, fish bones, peppercorns and plum stones."

After donning a pair of blue plastic gloves, I was given a close-up look at what can be found in the samples: Tudor straw probably used for bedding on the ship, and pitch used for water proofing and treating wounds.

The extent of survival and preservation of objects on board the Mary Rose has provided opportunities for scientific investigation on a scale never before encountered or available from a shipwreck.

For the Tudor period, it provides the single most comprehensive collection of many material types found anywhere in Britain, if not the world. The recovery and analysis of this information does not, however, come without its own problems.

The processing and sorting of the bulk of the samples took more than eight years, mainly from 1980 to 1988. Even today, not all of the samples have been processed or sorted, though the majority have been scanned or assessed by relevant experts.

A grant from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Development Service will contribute to the purchase of new containers as an emergency measure to rescue the silt samples, whose current containers have become brittle and liable to fracture.

One of the many leather shoes found on the wreck.
Photo: Emily Sands. © 24 Hour Museum.

The samples have been stored in these containers since they were raised from the wreck site in 1982 and it is important to re-house them as soon as possible to avoid potential contamination.

After the samples have been transferred to new containers, they will form the basis of a joint research project with Bournemouth University, which Andrew Elkerton hopes will give the students "real hands on experience".

As a result of DCF funding, the environmental sample area will be refurbished with new shelving and control equipment, providing full access to the collection and making more efficient use of limited storage areas.

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