The Mary Rose – a Unique Glimpse Into Life in Tudor Times

Building bridges between science, history, and archaeology

Customer Story

After more than thirty years in service for the English crown, the Mary Rose – a famous warship belonging to the Tudor King Henry VIII – sank during a maneuver at sea in 1545. The ship was fully equipped at the time and had over 500 sailors on board.

Mary Rose sinking (©Geoff Hunt, PPRSMA)4
According to the only confirmed eyewitness account of the Mary Rose’s sinking, the ship had fired all of its guns on one side and was in the process of turning when it was caught by a strong gust of wind.
© Geoff Hunt, PPRSMA

For many years nothing was known about life on board. How did the sailors carry out everyday tasks? Where did they originally come from and what did their lives at sea look like?

Bringing the Mary Rose back to life

The Mary Rose lay on the seabed for 430 years before being raised again in 1982. The excavation of the ship provided a unique opportunity to learn more about everyday life at sea 500 years ago. However, the researchers’ first challenge was to conserve the ship and its equipment. These are now located in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

What would life on board have been like?

Various different conservation techniques have been used to stabilize the wooden ship over the years. Microscopic evaluation helped to analyze the wood, assess the extent of degradation, and detect minerals and crystals that can destroy archaeological materials.

We spoke to Eleanor Schofield, Head of Conservation and Collections Care at the Mary Rose Trust and an honorary professor at the University of Kent, about the challenges of conserving this historical ship for future generations.

Schofield became the Conservation Manager at the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth in 2012. She is involved in overseeing the conservation of the ship’s hull and its many artifacts. Schofield conducts research into new conservation methodologies by developing preservation treatments, analyzing materials, and monitoring the stability of storage and display conditions.

Elenor Schofield, Conservation Manager at the Mary Rose Trust
“My job is ever-changing, with the goalposts moving constantly as we learn new things – that’s what makes it so exciting,” says Schofield.
© Royal Society of Chemistry/Anna Purkiss

What does your job as the Head of Conservation and Collections Care involve?

Our responsibility is to look after the Mary Rose collection. In addition to the ship itself, we found over 19,000 artifacts, including clothes, personal belongings, cooking equipment, bowls, ceramics, and more.

Conserving and maintaining these items is important to us. They provide us with a unique snapshot in time concerning everyone on board, as well as giving us an unparalleled glimpse into life in the Tudor period. We want to tell the stories of the people on the ship.

Many items from the ship, such as plates and cups, are similar to the ones we use today. They worked five hundred years ago and they work now. It’s fascinating to have such a strong connection to these everyday people, and it’s mind-blowing to imagine what life onboard the ship was like.

I also set up research projects in cooperation with universities and work with PhD students researching various topics. The main goal in doing so is to find new techniques or materials that aid in the conservation. These new techniques or materials can then be used to provide state-of-the-art conservation for our Mary Rose collection. For one project, we sent an Erasmus student to the ZEISS Microscopy Customer Center in Cambridge with samples from the Mary Rose. We took a variety of different material samples – wood, brick, and anchor cable.

Our research is reactive to what the collection needs. Our major focus is currently on wood and iron because of the degree of degradation these materials are exhibiting.

What role do microscopes play?

 A portion of a felted hat made of red wool imaged using ZEISS Smartzoom
A portion of a felted hat made of red wool imaged using ZEISS Smartzoom.

We use various different microscopes for microscopic evaluations. A scanning electron microscope with EDS helps us to examine different materials and to see what is inside them. The ZEISS Smartzoom 5 digital microscope in particular helps us to analyze both textile fibers and iron cannonballs. We often need to know what is going on inside the materials to identify the best conservation technique.

Of course, microscopes are important for our conservation work, but we also use microscopes to engage our visitors via outreach activities. For example, we did this during the last British Science Week. Our goal is to show people the importance of science in taking care of the Mary Rose collection.

Looking at our artifacts under a microscope really gets our visitors interested in the science behind our work. The more visitors we have, the more funds we get to put back into looking after our precious collection. We have showcased samples from the Mary Rose using ZEISS Stemi microscopes and screens on several occasions. We had samples of wood and a head louse taken from a wooden comb from the Mary Rose, as well as a historical comb from the Tudor period – which looks just like a modern comb.

What is the most important thing in conservation and collections care?

Our ultimate goal is to keep the ship and its artifacts stable. To do that, we need to understand how degradation affects the stability of each material, and then stabilize them with conservation treatments.

We have also challenges to overcome, such as fungi or microbes damaging the different materials. We have to conserve not only wood but also leather, textiles, bones, iron, bronze, brass, pewter, and more.

Dog Skeleton in Carpenter Showcase - (©Mary Rose Trust)
The ship’s dog is one of the more popular exhibits at The Mary Rose. © Mary Rose Trust

More information on ZEISS Smartzoom

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In addition to the items mentioned, fine pewter dishes, plates, tankards, spoons, books, and even clothes were found on the wreck. The collection tells us a great deal about life in Tudor times.

The bones of a total of 179 individuals were found during the excavation of the Mary Rose, including 92 fairly complete skeletons – around 45% of the crew. Analysis has shown that all were male and that up to 80% of them were under 30 years old.

Researchers are continuing to investigate the skeletons by carrying out DNA and isotope analysis. Chemical analysis of the bones can tell us whether an individual had an illness, as their bones would have been affected and potentially be broken or damaged. Bones also provide information about people’s professions, or about injuries they may have sustained. This research is regarded as invaluable in understanding many diseases.

Even the ship's dog, kept on board to catch rats, was found. According to DNA work performed on the dog’s teeth, he was between 18 and 24 months old, with a light- to dark-brown coat. He may have spent his entire life onboard the Mary Rose, rarely if ever going ashore. Sadly, he suffered from a hereditary disease called hyperuricosuria, a uric acid defect that causes kidney and bladder stones.

Tags: Light Microscopy

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