Treasures from the sea

Treasures from the sea

After she sank, Mary Rose would have remained forgotten at the bottom of the ocean if not for the wonders of Underwater Archaeology

Recently, the world comme­morated a hundred years since the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic. Almost four centuries earlier, on July 19, 1545, another ‘unsinkable’ ship sank off the coast of England: Mary Rose was Henry VIII’s (he of the six wives) favourite, state-of-the-art, fully armed and loaded warship – a veteran of 33 years of fierce sea battles, manned with a battle-hardened crew.

After she sank, Mary Rose would have remained forgotten and quietly decayed at the bottom of the ocean if it wasn’t for the wonders of Underwater Archaeology.

Underwater archaeology deals with remains from the past that are submerged under lakes, rivers and oceans. This means that in addition to being an archaeologist, you have to be an ace diver as well since excavations take place only underwater! It is painstaking work but these archaeologists are often lucky since underwater conditions sometimes preserve artefacts and structures. So it was with Mary Rose.

Mary Rose was built in Portsmouth, England between 1509 and 1511. She was named after Henry’s sister, Mary, and the symbol of the Tudor House, the Rose. She was among the finest warships to be built with specially designed gunports armed with huge bronze and iron cannons. She must have cut a dashing sight racing along the water with her special gilded flags and banners. With her handpicked crew, she was a lethal fighting machine. She was the flagship of the English Navy for 33 years. She was responsible for destroying many French vessels and had carried Henry’s armies into several battles.

In 1545, a French fleet of over 200 ships invaded England. On the morning of July 19, Henry himself was supervising the battle plans at Portsmouth.  To his utter horror, as Mary Rose sailed out to meet the enemy, all guns blazing, she listed to one side, capsized and sank right in front of him! Within minutes, the pride of the English fleet and almost 400 sailors had vanished from sight. To this day, no one can give a satisfactory explanation as to what went wrong.

In 1971 the wreck of Mary Rose was re-discovered by the historian and diver, Alexander McKee. He was the driving force behind a mega underwater archaeology salvage project that took over 12 years of surveying, 28000 diving hours and several years of sifting silt in order to conduct underwater excavations. There were many problems including funding (who was going to pay for this expensive affair?) and preservation – how to prevent the wooden structure of the ship from decaying the moment it came out of its watery home.
But finally, on October 11, 1982, more than 60 million people watched on live television as the massive hull of the ship was delicately lifted out of the silt, placed in a specially built ‘cradle’ and then raised gently out of the water with the help of a giant crane.

To prevent the hull from warping and turning to dust, it was placed in an atmospherically controlled dock and sprayed with cold, filtered water for almost 12 years! Then conservationists started spraying it with a special wax to coat and preserve the old wood. This spraying will finally end sometime this year. The wood will take another five years to completely dry out.

Time capsule

Along with the wreck came a treasure trove, a time capsule of the life and times of Tudor sailors. More than 25000 artefacts were brought up. Once they finished the hard work of preserving and recording these artefacts, archaeo­logists were stunned by the amount of information they had. A ship in those days was always stocked for months at sea. This meant that the crew would’ve had to carry all their essentials – food, implements and tools, clothes, games, entertain­ment, even their pets went along with them.

Of course there were skeletons: the remains of more than 250 of the crew members were found. There were also the bones from the salted meat that had been stored in barrels for the sailors to eat during the long months at sea. There were even skeletons of large rats that had plagued the ship. The sailors had used wooden spoons, bowls and dishes for eating and flagons or jugs for drinking beer and wine. The officers were a posh lot and were served in pewter (a metal that looks like silver) bowls, plates and tankards. The ship’s galley or kitchen had brick ovens with huge copper cauldrons set into it.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor...

An amazing discovery was the Carpenter’s Cabin. On a wooden sailing vessel, the carpenter would have been a VIP; he would have been in complete charge of repairs and maintenance, like an engineer. Archaeologists discovered a large cabin with a sliding door and three chests full of carpenter’s implements. There were drills, mallets and hammers. At the entrance to the cabin was the skeleton of a dog – probably the pampered pooch of the carpenter!

Another interesting character from the Tudor ship was the Barber-Surgeon. He was a sort of all-purpose man to maintain the health and hygiene on board. A complete chest of his implements were found, including the wooden handles of surgical tools, razors, shaving bowls, pots for ointments and medicines, and a huge copper syringe for injections!

The wreck of Mary Rose also turned up some of the earliest navigational aids in the world – dividers, compasses, sounding leads to calculate the water’s depth, tide calculators and a logreel, a wooden wheel used to calculate the ship’s speed in knots.

And of course, being a warship, there was a major amount of weaponry on board – heavy guns made of bronze and iron, longbows, thousands of arrows, swords, daggers and spears.

You can imagine what a long, complicated process it must have been to recover and conserve these thousands of artefacts from the ocean bed. At the end of 2012, almost thirty years after the  wreck of Mary Rose was lifted out of the ocean, a brand new Mary Rose Museum will open in Portsmouth, England. This will house the ship, its cabins and all the recovered artefacts in their restored glory. Visitors will be able to take part in all sorts of activities to get a feel of what life was like on board a 16th century

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