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The importance of archaeological illustration

An effective way to capture the features of artefacts recovered from an archaeological site is through archaeological illustration.

Recently, while volunteering with the collections/curatorial team, I was given the opportunity to work on a showcase containing objects from our secondary collection- a collection of objects that were not found on board the Mary Rose but that have a connection to the ship and its history.  The showcase highlights archaeological illustration, and in this blog, I will provide a glimpse into why this method of recording artefacts is so useful.

Archaeological illustrations form a large part of our secondary collection and they help us understand the features of artefacts recovered. Alongside photography, illustration is an essential method of recording finds. Through illustration, archaeologists are able to record subtle details like wear, personal markings, texture and patterns that may be missed in photos

Many of the artefacts were illustrated soon after they were raised from the seabed. Measured drawings were taken directly onto drafting film such as Permatrace. These scale drawings are essential because objects could shrink, lose detail, or even change shape during the conservation process, therefore many of the leather and wooden objects were drawn early, whilst being kept wet It took years for everything to be treated and the drawings are useful for the study or reconstruction of objects. Many artefacts were drawn and re-evaluated several times over the years where details may have been missed in the past, or had become more visible post-treatment.

There were many illustrators involved with the Mary Rose Trust over 44 years, and together they have produced over 10,000 illustrations! In working on the new showcase in the Mary Rose Museum, I had the task of selecting only 6 of these archaeological drawings to display alongside replicas of the objects they depict, a few of which will be featured below…

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Working on this showcase has highlighted why archaeological illustration is important for capturing the complex details on objects crafted almost 500 years ago, not always visible to the eye.

Take the top of this wooden knife handle for example, found on the main deck of the ship in 1987 (5 years after the raising of the hull). This illustration (artist: Crossman, 1992) reveals two intricately carved sixteenth-century scenes on either side. Just imagine the eye for detail this Tudor sailor must have had all those years ago in creating this 2-3cm image!

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With leather and wood, it is most obvious where for display purposes illustrations can be an essential aid for visitors in the museum. This illustration of what we believe is the cover of a prayer book (artist: Fulford, 1982) shows the complex imprinted patterns. This illustration of a wooden serving bowl (artist: Fulford, 1984) reveals scratch marks made from over-use, and the commonly stamped ‘H’ for King Henry VIII’s ownership.

Many of these illustrations are useful for reconstructive purposes. The measured drawings from all angles are incredibly informative not just for replicas, but for creating display mounts to support the objects in the showcases in the museum.

This leather pouch illustration (artist: Fulford, 1981) spread open for all of its inner pockets to be visible helped our reconstruction to be made, especially useful in demonstrating the once-visible silver thread. Click to see the full image
This drawing of one of the two fiddle instruments recovered (artist: Fulford, 1981) helped inform this associated playable replica. Click to see the full image

This is just a glimpse into the importance of archaeological illustration, and the features that can be made visible to help an audience to understand. Come and explore all of the real artefacts drawn here, and thousands more when you next visit the museum!

 

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