Ship ahoy! Mary Rose Museum opens to much fanfare
PORTSMOUTH, England (AFP) – The relics from the Mary Rose, the flagship of England’s navy when it sank in 1545 as a heartbroken king Henry VIII watched from the shore, have finally been reunited with the famous wreck in a new museum offering a view of life in Tudor times.
Skeletons, longbows, tankards, gold coins and even nit combs are going on display alongside the remains of the pride of Henry’s fleet.
Thousands of the 19,000 artifacts excavated from beneath the seabed can be seen in the new £27 million ($41 million, 32 million euro) Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth on England’s south coast, which opens on Friday.
Historians have dubbed the treasure trove the “English Pompeii”: a fragment of the past perfectly frozen in time.
“The objects are beautifully preserved because they were buried under the mud, and it’s that silt that actually preserved the objects,” said archaeologist Christopher Dobbs, one of the original salvage team members.
Built in the very dockyard where the new museum sits, the wooden ship was launched in 1511.
The Mary Rose fought three wars with the French but mysteriously keeled over and sank off Portsmouth on July 19, 1545, while fighting off a French invasion fleet. Around 500 men were killed, with no more than 35 surviving, as Henry looked on from the shore as it slipped below the waters of the Solent.
After a six-year search, the legendary ship was definitively identified in 1971.
Following years of painstaking work, the wreck was at last raised in 1982, in a spectacular operation watched live by millions on television.
Around a third of the wooden warship, which was nearly buried under the seabed, had survived, the exposed parts having eroded away.
Now thousands of articles removed from the decks are being exhibited alongside the wreck, which had previously been on show in a more modest museum in Portsmouth since 1983.
Wooden gun carriages, cooking pots, scalpels, leather book covers, syringes, fiddles, whistles, weapons, navigation devices and furniture are among the items on display.
The new museum, part of a £35 million heritage project, is a three-tiered, ellipse-shaped building made of black-stained timber.
Visitors walk through the galleries encircling the ship’s carcass in the near-darkness that is essential to preserve the objects, but it also evokes the conditions the crew would have experienced below deck, with the sound of wind, waves and creaking wood.
Day-to-day items recovered from the deep help to tell the story of the sailors’ lives.
“There is, we believe, nothing like this as an insight into life and death 500 years ago anywhere in the world,” Mary Rose Trust chief executive John Lippiett told AFP.
“It isn’t just a warship: it’s what they wore, their clothes, their food, what they drank out of, their spoons.
“It is the most extraordinary collection of artifacts and from that we can know better than anything what it was like in those days.
“From the human remains we can tell what a dreadful life they led, what injury and illness they had.”
Remains of around 45 percent of the crew were found.
Using the skeletons, experts have reconstructed the faces of seven crew members, their roles determined by where they were found, the objects around them and analysis of their bone structure.
They believe the faces are those of an archer, a carpenter, a cook, a gentleman, a master gunner, an officer and a purser.
The extraction of DNA from bones found on board is ongoing.
Crewmates were prone to nits, as proved by the number of fine-tooth combs found—with the centuries-old lice still trapped in them.
An early backgammon board, violins and leather book covers give an insight into the leisure pursuits on board.
Meanwhile, beef and pork bones survived in the mud, as did the skeletons of the ship’s dog and the rats she chased.
More surprising was the discovery of rosary beads for prayer. They were not yet banned but their use was condemned following Henry’s split from the Roman Catholic church in 1534.
The museum’s centerpiece, the surviving section of the Mary Rose, is drying out in the “hotbox” behind sealed glass.
Since it was raised, the hulk—more than 100 feet long and 40 feet high—has been sprayed with water and polyethylene glycol solution to prevent it from disintegrating.
Around 100 tons of liquid now need to be sweated out, which could take up to five years.
Then the glass barrier will be removed, allowing visitors to see the world’s only 16th-century warship on display, in all its glory.
Lippiett said: “We’re just starting, in very many ways, the story of the Mary Rose.”
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