Caring for our collection | The Mary Rose
Caring for our collection
Collections | 19 Feb, 2020 | The Collections Team
There is a lot more to displaying the objects from the Mary Rose than just taking them out of the sea, wiping off the mud and sticking them in a display case…

The conservation work undertaken on the Mary Rose’s objects involves not only preserving and stabilising the artefacts, but continuing to look after them when on display or in storage, to make sure that they can be studied and enjoyed by future generations.

Our collection comes from the largest underwater archaeological excavation to date and contains a vast array of different materials. Painstakingly these thousands of artefacts, timbers, samples and human remains, showcasing different levels of Tudor society, were excavated from the wreck site between 1971 and 1982.

Rope freshly recovered from the seabed
1. Recovering the artefacts

The conservation journey starts at the point of recovery. Removing them from the anaerobic environment, created by the silt which they lay in for hundreds of years, opens them up to deterioration. Unless cared for by our conservation team the thousands of unique artefacts would simply fall apart and be lost forever. The artefacts may even look in a good condition once raised but it can be what is happening inside the materials that causes their destruction.

So how do we take them from the waterlogged dirty condition upon excavation to how you see them in the museum?

Conservation of a Hat
2. Understanding the artefacts

Each object is unique in terms of the materials used to create it, their size and where they were found on the ship, as this can affect the impurities that have diffused within the material. We have a wide range of materials used from wood to leathers, textiles, stone and metals. Each of these can require different treatments, so it’s a vital part of our work to know what we’re dealing with, and to have the expertise to conserve these materials.

Anchor In Tank And Freeze Dryer
3. Treating the artefacts

We spend a lot of time treating wooden artefacts, as these make up the largest proportion of our collection, but some of the other objects are fascinating, especially the leather shoes and boots. In the case of these leather objects, we immerse them in bulking agents (like polyethylene glycol or glycerol) to replace the excess water and support the degraded structure of the leather. This is followed by a drying process which involves freeze drying. This process removes excess moisture from the material, but we have to be careful not to over dry the objects otherwise the suppleness and flexibility of the leather is lost.

The final part of the treatment is the many careful hours spent re-assembling the shoes or boots, an artistic skill that is honed after many years of practice. Each shoe takes several months to fully complete the treatment process. This is why it has taken such a long time to conserve as much of the collection as we have.

Inorganic materials, such as metals and stone, require a different form of treatment which removes salts from the objects that have diffused into them during their burial in the sea. Not removing these would cause major problems later on down the line after the objects have been dried. Salts in iron especially will accelerate damaging corrosion formation, therefore we use washing treatments to try to remove them.

Science at The Mary Rose
4. Monitoring the artefacts

After all these lengthy treatments are completed, you might think that that’s it, job done. However, this is not the case.

When the objects go on display, we monitor the specially controlled environments within the object’s display case, and do regular visual checks to make sure that they are not deteriorating any further. If we notice any changes, we investigate the cause and sometimes do further treatments to achieve stability.

We’ve achieved a lot over the last 40 years, but still have a large number of objects and timbers awaiting conservation, and many items conserved and on display that need to be continually cared for.

We need your help to fund our efforts to protect and preserve more from this Tudor time capsule. Please donate £20 today and help us keep this amazing collection preserved.