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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 October 2007, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Just what did the Mary Rose tell us?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The Mary Rose in dry dock

The raising of the Mary Rose in 1982 was greeted with feverish excitement, but what has this landmark find actually told us in the 25 years since?

At the tail end of 1982 it seemed like you couldn't switch on Newsround without seeing something to do with Mary Rose.

Our fascination with the ship that met a sticky end while firing at a French invasion fleet in 1545 has flared at times in the years since. It is almost a rite of passage for some school children to go and see this emblem of the Tudor age.

But as significant as the ship itself are the artefacts that were recovered (both from within and from the sea bed), providing an insight into the life of the Tudors; proving and disproving countless strands of conjecture about the period.

Historian David Starkey has described the Mary Rose as "this country's Pompeii, preserved by water not by fire". Unlike most archaeological sites it has not been significantly interfered with by subsequent generations.

Reconstruction of Mary Rose
The ship may have looked a little like this reconstruction
"It is a time capsule, literally frozen in time from the day she sank in 1545," explains Rear Admiral John Lippiett, chief executive of the Mary Rose Trust. "It has given us an insight into Tudor life that was unachievable."

Items recovered from the wreck have given alarming insights into the world of Tudor medicine. Looking at a urethral syringe that would have been loaded with mercury, one might wince. But this would have been used to treat syphilis in the sailors. We know now, of course, that mercury is a poison.

As well as the artefacts, the bodies recovered from the wreck have shown the state of health of some Tudor males. The average height of the sailors was 5ft 7ins, not perhaps as short as some might have supposed.

To Captain Christopher Page, head of the Naval Historical Branch, this is perhaps the most startling discovery.

"I'm a historian of the First World War and the average height of a soldier in that conflict was in the order of 5ft 6ins." Compared with their counterparts 350 years later, "the men in the Mary Rose were bigger, stronger and fitter," says Capt Page.

The Times

"In some respects the men who manned the Mary Rose were an elite, but this also perhaps tells you something about changes in society. By the late 19th/early 20th Century, we were more urbanised and the diet wasn't as good."

Of those on board, 25% had no significant tooth decay, leading Admiral Lippiett to suggest the "shape of their teeth was far better than in today's society".

Navigational objects on the ship forced archaeologists to reconsider their take on Tudor technology. A gimbals compass, which will rotate on two axes so it remains horizontal whatever the movement of the ship, was thought to be an object of the 17th Century. But three were recovered from the Mary Rose.

Of the military finds, Capt Page is most struck by the longbows on board - measuring "in the order of 6ft".

"I had it in my own mind that longbows had been phased out by then. There were so few in existence, from the era before the Mary Rose, you realise these were extremely powerful weapons and required great strength and specialism to use them."

A still shawm, a precursor of the modern oboe, was also found on the ship. Something that had been written about in accounts of the time could now be reconstructed and played. It sounds rather like a kazoo.

Raising the Mary Rose
Raised from the seas, 11 October 1982
Objects like clothes, shoes, wooden bowls and cups are the kind of things that are not always found in digs from the period.

The recovery of the ship has also allowed the story of the its demise to be fleshed out, Admiral Lippiett says.

The Mary Rose, effectively the Royal Navy's first dedicated warship, was firing guns on the starboard side, with 200 soldiers in heavy armour on its deck, in gathering winds, probably trying to alter course to fire its stern guns at the French ships. Its open gun ports allowed the water in.

Work done on the ship has also helped to refine conservation techniques first used on the Swedish ship Vasa in Stockholm. Wood is sprayed with cold water and polyethylene gycol. In 2011 the spraying will stop and the ship will be "baked". It will then be able to be viewed without glass.

"It will be as solid as the oak floor I'm standing on," says Admiral Lippiett.


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