Mary Rose - Archaeology


As one of the most ambitious and expensive projects in the history of maritime archaeology, the Mary Rose project broke new ground within this field in the UK. Besides becoming one of the first wrecks to be protected under the new Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973 it also created several new precedents. It was the first time that a British privately funded project was able to fully apply modern scientific standards and without having to auction off part of the findings to finance its activities; where previous projects often had to settle for just a partial recovery of finds, everything found in connection with the Mary Rose was recovered and recorded. The salvage made it possible to establish the first historic shipwreck museum in the UK to receive government accreditation and funding. The excavation of the Mary Rose wrecksite proved that it was possible to achieve a level of exactness in underwater excavations comparable to those on dry land.

Throughout the 1970s, the Mary Rose was meticulously surveyed, excavated and recorded with the latest methods within the field of maritime archaeology. Working in an underwater environment meant that principles of land-based archaeology did not always apply. Mechanical excavators, airlifts and suction dredges were used in the process of locating the wreck, but as soon as it began to be uncovered in earnest, more delicate techniques were employed. Many objects from the Mary Rose had been well preserved in form and shape, but many were quite delicate, requiring careful handling. Artefacts of all sizes were supported with soft packing material, such as old plastic ice cream containers, and some of the arrows that were "soft like cream cheese" had to be brought up in special styrofoam containers. The airlifts that sucked up clay, sand and dirt off-site or to the surface were still used, but with much greater precision since they could potentially disrupt the site. The many layers of sediment that had accumulated on the site could be used to date artefacts in which they were found, and had to be recorded properly. The various types of accretions and remnants of chemicals with artefacts were essential clues to objects that had long since broken down and disappeared, and needed to be treated with considerable care.

The excavation and salvage in the 1970s and early ’80s meant that diving operations ceased, even though modern scaffolding and part of the bow were left on the seabed. The pressure on conservators to treat tens of thousands of artefacts and the high costs of conserving, storing and displaying the finds and the ship meant that there were no funds available for diving. In 2002, the UK Ministry of Defence announced plans to build two new aircraft carriers. Because of the massive size of the new vessels, the outlet from Portsmouth needed to be surveyed to make sure that they could sail no matter the tide. The planned route for the underwater channel ran close to the Mary Rose wrecksite, which meant that funding was supplied to survey and excavate the site once more. Even though the planned carriers were down-sized enough to not require alteration of Portsmouth outlet, the excavations had already exposed timbers and were completed in 2005. Among the most important finds was the ten metre (32 feet) stem, the forward continuation of the keel, which provided more exact details about the original profile of the ship.

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