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Cover of British Archaeology 71

Issue 71

July 2003



New Neolithic settlements found on Orkney

Medieval double watermill found at Stafford

Iron Age hilltop ‘town’ found at Margate

Prehistoric landscape of settlement, ritual and magic

Coins reveal how Hannibal bankrupted the Romans

In Brief


Underground warfare
Ken Wiggins on the archaeology of mines and countermines

Great sites
David Gaimster on the importance of Henry VIII's flagship

Islands in the Neolithic
Gordon Noble on how farming came to Britain via its islands

Tale of the limpet
Caroline Wickham-Jones on a shellfish with a long history


Roman burials, medieval fields, and Saxons in Scotland


George Lambrick on the looting of antiquities in Iraq

Peter Ellis

On archaeology and today's mentality of hurry, hurry, hurry


A History of Childhood by Colin Heywood

Conserving landscapes reviewed by Christopher Catling

Roman Lincoln by MJ Jones

Farming in the First Millennium AD by Peter Fowler

CBA update

favourite finds

Paul Pettitt on an antiquarian book found in a junkshop


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


Great sites: The Mary Rose

Since it was raised in 1982, the Mary Rose has proved to be the most important time capsule we have for the Tudor period. David Gaimster recalls the rescue of Henry VIII’s famous warship, and the discovery and conservation of its remarkable collection of 19,000 well-preserved artefacts

Like Nonsuch Palace, a previous 'Great Sites' feature of the early modern period (ba, August 2001), the Mary Rose is intimately linked to its creator, Henry VIII, King of England, who named his flagship after his favourite sister, Mary. Like the great Renaissance palace in Surrey, the Mary Rose is one of the few 16th century sites that have achieved a high public profile.

It is now 21 years since Henry's flagship broke the surface of the Solent to a watching global audience of 60 million, ending 427 years of entombment. It was a seminal moment for maritime archaeology and helped define the emerging discipline of post-medieval archaeology.

The loss of the Mary Rose on 19 July 1545 was both dramatic and unexpected, with the result that everything within the hull was trapped and preserved in situ. The fact that the ship contained not only guns and weaponry, but also personal objects such as clothing and jewellery makes the Mary Rose the most important time capsule we have for the Tudor period.

Moreover, the raising of the hull of the warship in 1982 after 11 years of excavation directed by Margaret Rule has transformed our knowledge of war at sea during a period of rapid change in military technology and strategy.

Since 1983, the Mary Rose has received over 300,000 visitors per year. The ship's museum is now regarded as one of Britain's collections of outstanding importance, and the Mary Rose Trust recently secured a £4.1 million Lottery grant to complete the second stage of conservation on the warship. The conservation and research programmes generated by the raising of the Mary Rose continue to tantalise both popular imagination and historical debate.

Sinking in the Solent

The Mary Rose was built in 1510 and enjoyed a successful career before capsizing with the loss of 700 lives during an engagement with the French invasion fleet off Portsmouth harbour. The sinking may have been a result of overloading, poor seamanship or both.

Witnesses described how the flagship keeled over with the wind while her lowest gunports were left open after firing. As one of the earliest naval vessels to be fitted with lidded ports and guns close to the waterline, the Mary Rose represents an important stage in warship design for which we have no contemporary hull drawings.

The lengthy programme of research that preceded the raising of the hull developed many of the techniques now used in underwater excavation. Notable also for its high level of amateur participation, the four intensive excavation years from 1979 until 1982 accounted for 24,640 dives - equivalent to nine man-years on the seabed. The project also broke new ground in its constant exposure in the media, particularly through its ground-breaking contract with the bbc Chronicle team to film all aspects of the excavation and raising operation.

In addition, experience gained during the post-excavation process has been critical to the refinement of techniques for the conservation of waterlogged wood and other organic artefacts from the seabed.

The hull of the Mary Rose provides a prime source of information on the transition between late medieval and early modern naval ship design. Dendrochronology has demonstrated that the rebuilds referred to in contemporary records were extensive. They included major strengthening of the hull in the 1530s and refits close to the gun ports in the 1540s.

Examination of the surviving frames and plankings has revealed dramatic evidence of the transformation from a large warship originally built using overlapping clinker planks in the late medieval style to a modern carvel-style hull with replacement planks set edge-to-edge at the maindeck level. The frames had been adzed to remove the sharp angle of a land, or notch, which originally housed the edge of the clinker plank. The even skin of the carvel hull enabled shipwrights to cut gunports close to the waterline. The lids, being flush with the hull, provided an effective watertight seal while at sea.

The Mary Rose is one of the earliest documented examples of the development of this new technology on a single vessel. But it is the multi-decked, three-masted construction, with heavy guns arranged on a main continuous gundeck, and firing through gunports, that sets this ship apart from its medieval predecessors.

The range and diversity of armament found on board the Mary Rose illustrates the extent of the early Tudor transition from old concepts of combat at sea to new thinking in naval warfare. The 2,000 arrows and nearly 150 longbows found on board reflect the continuing reliance on traditional methods of anti-personnel artillery. Yet the combination of antique stave-built wrought iron guns used to fire stone shot with the latest cast bronze guns designed for heavier iron shot positioned along the main gundeck emphasizes the developmental character of naval gunnery tactics at the time.

Although the wrought-iron and bronze guns comprise some of the more spectacular artefacts recovered from the wreck of the warship, their significance pales in comparison to that of the two-wheeled trail carriages, more appropriate to field artillery, and the four-wheeled truck carriages, ancestors of those used on the decks of hms Victory some 250 years later. The carriages are unique in situ survivals for the 16th century on either land or sea. While the wreck has produced some of the earliest evidence for the use of truck carriages for heavy guns, the overall assemblage of ordnance on board the Mary Rose is indicative of a transitional phase in which tried and trusted weapons for waging sea battles were still favoured, possibly in preference to newer and heavier technology.

Living community

Besides being a fighting platform, the Mary Rose was also a living community, and its wreck represents the greatest single deposit in western Europe of domestic artefacts in everyday use during the early modern period. Of the 19,000 artefacts recovered during excavation, 6,503 (36 per cent) were made of wood. The domestic wood, including furniture, is of particular importance because it survives so infrequently on terrestrial sites.

Among the ship's fittings were lanterns with hinged and sliding doors as well as furniture, including stools, benches, folding stands, trestles and tables. The domestic equipment, part of which may have been the property of individual mariners and gunners, covers a wide spectrum of objects that rarely survive elsewhere from the period. The wood assemblage includes knives of various types, daggers, trenchers, wooden spoons, peppermills, balances, serving troughs, stave-built and turned tankards and flagons, turned bowls, dishes and plates, as well as boxwood combs (some of which were associated with human remains).

Of the domestic assemblage found on the wreck of the warship, the 51 wooden chests have sparked considerable interest, not only with regard to form and construction, but also as a number were recovered with their contents in situ.

Tools of the trade

Chests were either brought on board as empty storage containers for unspecified use, and were used to stow tools, equipment or materials, or were supplied as standard government issue complete with contents such as the arrows and longbows which were found intact inside five of the smaller chests and three of the larger containers.

Otherwise, these chests were individually owned and were used to store personal possessions or professional tools and equipment. The contents of three of the chests - each one a time capsule in its own right - suggests they were owned respectively by the barber surgeon, the pilot and a carpenter. They were each found in separate cabins, or compartments of the ship, for which a function could be determined by association with the artefacts found.

Made of walnut, the chest attributed to the barber surgeon contained approximately 60 items, including nine turned poplar ointment canisters containing various ointments and a further one containing peppercorns, pine spatulas for the application of ointment, five watertight stoneware medicine bottles from the Rhineland with cork stoppers, a glass bottle, a pear-shaped feeding bottle made from cherry or maple wood with teat-shaped removable top, the remains of what might be a trepan, a pewter canister, a brass syringe, rolls of thin textile field dressings, along with wooden bowls and handles or surgical instruments.

It is significant that the cabin containing the barber surgeon's chest was situated on the main gundeck, close to action stations. The ready-to-use dressings and partially used jars of ointment, with fingermarks showing where scoops of salve had been removed, indicate that the surgeon was standing by for action, if not already engaged, when the Mary Rose sank.

In contrast, the elm chest situated in the pilot's cabin contained mainly personal items, including a leather pouch, a carved boxwood knife sheath, a set of identical aglets (ornamental dress-tags) with remnants of textile, and a gimballed compass (with self-correcting bearings to keep it horizontal) - the only piece of navigational equipment found on board. A pine plotting board and two pairs of dividers in their ash wood case were found nearby.

The contents of the walnut dovetailed chest found in the carpenter's cabin is suggestive of an owner of some wealth and education. It contained four pewter plates, a leather book cover, a decorated pouch, silver coins, silver rings and a portable sundial in its leather case. The three small lead weights, a long chalk line reel, and two ash handles thought to be gimlets (small boring tools) are the only objects associated with carpentry that were found in the chest.

Outside the carpenter's cabin, a chest containing silver coins and jewellery, an engraved copper knife handle of Low Countries type, a kidney dagger, a pair of shoes, a leather book cover, six bone dice, two whetstones, two thimble rings, a lead weight and tool handle indicate an owner of modest wealth and almost certain literacy. The presence of copper alloy priming wire and a carved linstock - a staff for holding a lighted match for firing cannon - suggest that he might have been a master gunner.

The equipment necessary to catch fresh fish, possibly to supplement rations, was found in an elm chest near the barber surgeon's cabin. This included cork and willow floats, a disgorger, a ceramic vessel with pouring lip, a wooden bowl, a leather flask, knives and wooden knife sheaths.

Several of the artefacts found inside a poplar chest stowed on the upper deck toward the stern suggest it may have belonged to an apothecary. The contents included a small wooden stave-built container with traces of a white substance, presumably its original contents, a copper-alloy balance inside its original rectangular beech wood case with sliding lid, and three copper hexagonal weights of different sizes.

Decorative shoes

Finally, some of the chests were found to contain a single pair of shoes. One individual, however, owned three pairs of the same size. One pair was covered in decorative slashes, while the other two pairs were plain.

Despite the high number of chests found on board the Mary Rose, it is important to acknowledge that most ordinary mariners and soldiers on board the warship were unlikely to have possessed anything more than the clothes they wore or meagre items they carried on their person. Only men with wealth or status in the shipboard hierarchy would have owned enough possessions to warrant storage or afford the manufacture or transport of a personal chest.

The Mary Rose - the ship, its remarkable saga of excavation and recovery, the research programme and the museum - represents a touchstone for the archaeology of the early modern world. Nowhere else, and on no other maritime site, is it possible to find such preservation and information on warship design and on the living and working conditions of a crew, itself a microcosm of Tudor society in which there was little distinction between military and civilian roles. The preserved hull and associated museum will continue to hold a fascination for maritime and terrestrial archaeologists for many years to come.

David Gaimster is a senior policy advisor in the Cultural Property Unit at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. He is President of the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology

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