How Will Scientists Save the Mary Rose?

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How Will Scientists Save the Mary Rose?

The Mary Rose is one of the most famous shipwrecks in all of history, but a new study shows that the favorite warship of King Henry VIII is being dest

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The Mary Rose is one of the most famous shipwrecks in all of history, but a new study shows that the favorite warship of King Henry VIII is being destroyed by tiny specks of acidic iron and sulphur compounds. Researchers will have to carefully remove these if they wish to preserve the 510-year-old vessel which has provided several important insights into Tudor society over the years.

The Pride of the Tudor Navy

The Mary Rose was one of the largest vessels in the English navy in the 16th century. It was built on the orders of Henry VIII soon after his coronation and according to the University of Warwick , it is “often considered to be his favorite.”

Illustration of the Mary Rose ship to show what it could have looked like. ( Public domain )

The warship sank in the Solent, off the southern coast of England in 1545 during a battle with a French fleet. This vessel was very advanced for its time, and it was preserved in the silt of the English Channel. The shipwreck is a remarkably preserved archaeological site and has provided many insights into Tudor life.

Discovering the Signs of a Slow Destruction

However, the fate of the ship is under threat due to its removal from the water and exposure to oxygen. This change of location has allowed acidic, sulphur-based compounds to form, and these compounds are slowly breaking down the wood of the Mary Rose’s hull. But a team of researchers led by the University of Sheffield believe that there is a way to combat the harmful nanoparticles attacking the famous Tudor warship.

According to the Daily Mail , the issue was uncovered when the researchers combined “their X-ray computed tomography scan data with pair distribution function analysis, which provides structural information on disorder materials.” This allowed them to pinpoint exactly which sections of the wood are under the greatest threat of degradation without damaging any irreplaceable samples. They reported their findings in the journal Matter.

(A) Isometric drawing of the Mary Rose hull in its current state. Samples were collected from the keelson wood. (B) Backscattered electron (BSE) image from section 1 of keelson wood. (E-H) These images reveal the presence of iron-sulfur compounds and sodium salts within the wood structure. ( Jensen, K. et al. Matter, 2021 )

Professor Serena Cussen of the University of Sheffield, who co-authored the new paper and is a functional nanomaterials expert, said, “What our results have done is alert conservators to these previously unknown deposits and expand the study of degradation-inducing materials. Knowing the structure of these potentially harmful species also allows us to design targeted treatments for their future removal.”

Now the researchers are working with the Mary Rose Trust to create magnetic nanoparticle-based treatments which can target and remove the harmful compounds from the ship’s remains, which are currently on display at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Finding Relics on the Mary Rose Ship

In 2020, experts also used the latest X-ray technology to examine three pieces of chainmail dating from the 16th century that were found in the shipwreck. The study of the metal pieces has provided experts with a better understanding of how chain armor was produced and the effectiveness of conservation techniques.

The study involved three pieces of metal that were once part of a suit of chainmail, a type of armor. This armor was typically made by joining together numerous links to make a sheet of iron mail which offered the wearer a great deal of protection, while still allowing them to be mobile. This type of armor dates back to ancient times, but it was used by various European and other armies right up until relatively modern times.

The pieces of mail were taken from the hull of the Mary Rose ship and the researchers believe that they may have come from the armor of a soldier who drowned when the ship sank. For many years the wreck was investigated by marine archaeologists, who have retrieved many treasures from the site, including the small pieces of chainmail.

Image of one of the chainmail links, cleaned and conserved. (Mark Dowsett with permission from the Mary Rose Trust / University of Warwick)

Image of one of the chainmail links, cleaned and conserved. (Mark Dowsett with permission from the Mary Rose Trust / University of Warwick )

Breakthrough Technology Proves Effective Again

The three metal items were examined by a team of experts from the University of Warwick (United Kingdom) and the University of Ghent (Belgium). They employed some of the latest X-ray technology, “such as XMaS beamline to examine the surface chemistry of the links,” reports the University of Warwick . XMaS was developed by the University of Warwick and Liverpool, and it is located at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), in Grenoble France, were it is used by many research teams, including the team from the most recent study examining the destructive nanoparticles.

The chemical analysis allowed them to understand how the mail was made in the Tudor era. It was found that the brass alloy used in the chainmail consisted of 73% copper and 27% zinc. Professor Mark Dowsett who worked on the project told Heritage Daily , “the results indicate that in Tudor times, brass production was fairly well controlled and techniques such as wire drawing were well developed.”

Image of one of the chainmail links, which has the appearance of copper. (Mark Dowsett with permission from the Mary Rose Trust / University of Warwick )

It appears that the brass was made locally and also imported from the continent. Prof. Dowsett told the University of Warwick that “it’s quite a modern alloy.” The metal was produced using very sophisticated techniques and it demonstrates the high level of skills possessed by Tudor armorers.

Mystery Traces

The analysis of the chemicals found something rather mysterious. During testing, the experts found a “high level of heavy metals, such as lead and gold,” reports  the University of Warwick . They were found on the surface and how they came to be there is perplexing. One theory is that the link picked them up when they were being produced in workshops. It is also possible that the traces of heavy metal are a result of pollution, especially after the bombing of Portsmouth Dockyard during World War II.

Another explanation is that the traces of heavy metal were picked up by the links during a battle. Prof. Dowsett told Heritage Daily that “in a Tudor battle, there might be quite a lot of lead dust produced by the firing of munitions.” There is the possibility that the heavy metals came into contact with a sheet of chainmail during a battle, possibly even during the sea-fight that resulted in the sinking of the Mary Rose vessel.

Raising the Mary Rose Shipwreck from the Dead

The hull of the sunken ship was raised in 1982. It was conserved using pioneering techniques – as were many other items recovered from the wreck, including the links of chainmail. They were treated with a variety of chemicals, to remove chlorine, and also stored in a humid environment.

The Mary Rose ship going through conservation and preservation at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, United Kingdom. (Mary Rose Trust / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Mary Rose ship going through conservation and preservation at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, United Kingdom. (Mary Rose Trust / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

During the X-rays, the team were amazed to see how well preserved the links are 30 years after they were first preserved. Heritage Daily reports Prof. Dowsett as stating that “the analysis shows that basic measures to remove chlorine followed by storage at reduced temperature and humidity form an effective strategy even over 30 years.”

Top image: The conserved Mary Rose ship on show.        Source: Mary Rose Trust / University of Warwick

By Ed Whelan

Updated October 29, 2021.

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