As part of the 35th anniversary celebrations last year, divers who originally worked on the wreck of the Mary Rose in the 1970s and 1980s returned to the Mary Rose Museum for a special reunion. The famous Tudor ship sank in 1545, raised from the sea in 1982 by a team of dedicated divers.
Highlights of the reunion
For the first time since the wreck was out of the water, divers could see the whole internal structure of the Mary Rose without either the spraying system or drying tubes masking its structure.
Divers were able to look into the areas they excavated and see the ship’s Tudor artifacts — some of which they might have lifted themselves — displayed in the three long, mirror-image galleries opposite the ship. As they enjoyed dinner in one of the galleries, the divers could also observe the ship through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Alex Hildred, now the Mary Rose Museum’s head of research and curator of ordnance and human remains, and Christopher Dobbs, head of interpretation and maritime archaeology, were among key staff who welcomed former colleagues from around the world. Old friends were some of the 500 divers who helped to excavate the ship. Even today, the project remains the largest underwater archaeological excavation ever undertaken.
The group reminisced about their shared experiences, focusing not only on the recovery of the ship but also on the discovery of thousands of Tudor objects contained inside.
“It was lovely to see so many of the old team, many of whom we hadn’t seen in years, if not decades,” says Hildred. “Diving on the wreck was always exciting, in spite of the poor underwater visibility and challenging conditions in the Solent. Our common goal at the time, the recovery of the Mary Rose, will forever bind the divers.”
“The recovery and subsequent raising of the Mary Rose were tremendously exciting to all of us who took part in the dives,” adds Dobbs. “The anniversary reunions not only enable us to look back at the past but also show that the Mary Rose project is a rich, ongoing project. We present the stories in the new museum in a way that is relevant to non-museum goers and to a twenty-first century audience.”
Festival of Archaeology
The anniversary celebrations also included the Festival of Archaeology. Through talks, special guests and hands-on activities, the museum team showcased the world’s largest underwater excavation, aiming to inspire future archaeologists.
The festival’s “Meet the Mary Rose divers” event enabled visitors to join some of the key members of the dive teams and hear first-hand about the trials and tribulations of excavating underwater.
To mark the 35th anniversary, the Mary Rose also hosted two days of lectures, featuring historians and underwater archaeologists.
Going ballistic — science meets conservation
Years earlier, divers had also raised more than 1,200 of the Mary Rose cannonballs from the seabed. But as seawater and iron are incompatible, corrosion had started to eat away at the metal, weakening the cannonballs’ structure.
Fast forward to 2018 and a ground-breaking partnership between the Mary Rose Museum, University College London and Diamond Light Source. The Mary Rose’s head of conservation Dr. Eleanor Schofield and her colleagues have been working at the cutting-edge of conservation science to protect and preserve the huge haul of cannonballs.
In a contradictory twist, however, the only way to uncover how to preserve the cannonballs has been to sacrifice the integrity of a few. The decision was made in June 2017 to cut a segment from less than 1 percent of the entire collection in order to save the rest.
The cut cannonballs were set in a resin and studied using the very bright light from a synchrotron, which reveals how iron changes as it rusts. This allows development of new protective techniques.
“People often ask me what science has to do with the Mary Rose; the answer is everything,” says Dr. Schofield. “We need the detail Diamond offers because this process often starts at the cellular and molecular level. Science is a vital part of conservation, and it’s great to know that we’re playing our part in preserving our cultural heritage.”
As such, the ship is an ongoing conservation project and divers involved in its recovery have helped raise magnificent Tudor treasures that continue to fascinate young and old alike. It is indeed a must-experience British icon, both enriching and entertaining. A world-class Tudor attraction, the Mary Rose is the like of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
By guest author Martin Macdonald