Shipwreck Science | The Mary Rose
Shipwreck Science
Learning | 17 Jan, 2023 | The Learning Team
Discover more about the science behind the Mary Rose

When you think of visiting the Mary Rose Museum, your first thoughts are probably the Tudors or King Henry VIII, but we have a museum bursting with scientific interest! Research into the ship and her artefacts illuminates Tudor history, while the latest innovations in conservation science help preserve her for future generations. Read on to discover our top picks for the science behind the story. This blog is a good introduction for families, teachers, students, or anyone who wants to learn more about heritage science!

The Ship

King Henry VIII’s favourite ship sits in pride of place as the centrepiece of the museum. One of the most asked questions is: why is there only half a ship? The starboard side on display was preserved due to the lack of oxygen in the silt and sand she was buried in.  The port side, which was sticking out of the silt, was worn away by currents and eaten by shipworm and gribble.  When you visit the museum, look out for white marks on the timbers of the ship; these are ‘PEG’ (polyethylene glycol) - the chemical used to stabilise the wood.  Incredibly, the Mary Rose is still supported by the yellow lifting cradle on which she was raised in 1982. The eagle-eyed might spot the white monitors recording the temperature and humidity around the ship and in the display cabinets. Our scientists (conservators) use a laser scanner to monitor the condition of the ship and you can see the amazing results of this 3D scanning at home -  The conservation work at the museum provides opportunities for young people to discover careers in STEM, and see practical applications of science at work.


What kind of materials survived on the Mary Rose? Underwater, materials which would usually not survive on land, such as wood and leather were preserved. Many small iron objects rusted away completely, although amazingly, two nails survived inside a barrel of tar. You can touch, see and smell real and replica artefacts on one of our handling tables.  At home, check out our artefact gallery and 3D scanned objects: This provides some great examples for work on materials and their properties. For primary-age children, for example, compare the crews’ wooden tankards with pewter tankards for the officers. Why not make your own paper-craft tankard to enhance this activity?

Evidence from the human remains

During the excavation, 98 fairly complete skeletons of the crew were found. Scientific research into these individuals has provided huge amounts of information about the ailments and injuries of the crew. In the museum you can meet our Archer – a model next to his skeleton shows what we think he looked like. His skeleton showed a fused elbow joint and an unusual shoulder blade caused by years of archery.  We know many of the crew suffered from incredibly painful abscesses and rotting teeth. There are also some fantastic case studies for diversity in Tudor England amongst our crew, using the scientific evidence from DNA and isotope analysis. The skeletons of the crew are always a popular topic for adult learning groups.

Diet and Nutrition

There were two cauldrons encased in brick ovens at the bottom of the ship, where the Cook provided meals for both officers and crew. The officers were served on pewter tableware and would have expected quality food. The crew used wooden tableware, with nothing as tasty as the officers.  The crew had ship’s biscuits, pork, beef, butter, cheese and dried peas, but preserved with huge amounts of salt, making them very unhealthy. They definitely didn’t have their 5-a-day! Beer was drunk instead of water, as water would make people unwell. Beer is boiled when it is made, which we now know kills many of the germs.

Visit us

The possibilities are endless for STEM-related stories, with projects to interest and inspire visitors of all ages. New conservation techniques and research are part of the ongoing story of the Mary Rose.