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Life on board

What would life have been like on board a great ship like the Mary Rose?

Bringing the Mary Rose back to life

From the artefacts and historical documents, we can piece together what kind of life the sailors may have had.

The Mary Rose offers us a unique glimpse into life in Tudor times. As described by Dr David Starkey, she is ‘England’s Pompeii’.

Many archaeological sites from the past have been filtered by the society that made them. For instance, graves or ritual sites only contain a small fraction of day-to-day objects. However, the Mary Rose enables us to see day-to-day life in all its wonderful detail.

The first recorded crew list for the Mary Rose dates back to 1513 and consists of mariners, soldiers and gunners, although their names were not given. Servants also appear on some of the later pay rolls. The artefacts found on board give us a unique insight into what their life was like.

There were 415 crew members listed in 1513, but during wartime operations there would have been more soldiers on board, with numbers perhaps swelling to around 700 men in total. Even with the normal crew size of around 400, conditions would have been very crowded.

The Mary Rose was the crew’s home and their workspace. As the ship was rapidly buried in very fine silt, a lot of their possessions are very well preserved, including wood, leather, human and animal bones.

We were able to recover a number of chests from the site, so we could study collections of objects and ascertain which crew members might own which possessions. There were a number of professional objects, such as the tools owned by onboard carpenters, or the ointments and medicine flasks used by the surgeon.

One other unique aspect of the objects found on board is the huge numbers of identical objects, such as 6,600 arrow fragments, or the large number of wooden dishes. Having so many similar artefacts enables historians to study the standards of production and the quality of goods manufactured at a specific time.

Food & drink
Fine pewter dishes, plates, tankards and spoons were found on the wreck, which were probably used by the officers.

 

However, the site also contained lots of wooden bowls, dishes, plates and tankards. These are extremely important finds as these kinds of everyday domestic objects were normally just thrown away rather than kept for posterity.

In the galley, down in the hold just in front of the step for the main mast, were two massive brick ovens. The crew’s food was cooked here in two large cauldrons supported on iron bars over a fire box. Smaller bronze, iron and ceramic cooking pots were also found nearby.

The excavation also found casks containing meat bones, both cattle and pig. It looks as if the animals were butchered to meet certain standards – for instance, there were no marrow bones as presumably they would have gone off more quickly than other bones.

The food remains were analysed early on in the excavation and give historians an invaluable insight into how much food was needed to run a ship like the Mary Rose.

The findings have enabled ‘experimental archaeology’, where experts recreate the cooking facilities and the type and variety of meals that might have been on the Mary Rose.

Clothing
Very little is known about the clothing worn by everyday people in Tudor times. Paintings depict people in court dress or special occasions. The Mary Rose gives us a unique insight into the day-to-day clothes of ordinary people.

Deeply buried in the silt, wool, silk and leather survived well but sadly garments of linen have almost entirely disappeared. So the Mary Rose gives us an excellent collection of leather shoes, jerkins and knitted garments, but no undergarments as they would have been made of linen.

One particularly important find is the collection of over 500 shoes. This allows historians to understand more about the particular style of shoe being worn at a specific time.

Entertainment
The objects found in the wreck show that in their spare time the men relaxed with books, music and games.

 

Divers found a fine wooden backgammon set which still had some of its counters. There was also a nine men’s morris board scratched into the end of a barrel. Eleven dice made of bone were discovered in chests, which is to be expected as gaming was popular in the Tudor period.

Musical instruments were also among the artefacts found on the Mary Rose. Three tabor pipes and a tabor, or drum, were found among personal chests on the orlop deck. A musician would have played a melody on the pipe while beating the rhythm on the drum with his other hand. Fragments of two fiddles were also found on board.

The most exciting musical discovery was a still shawm, or douçaine, an early form of oboe. This is the earliest one of its kind and is unique in having an extra hole for the thumb, giving it a wider musical range than later shawms. Perhaps there was a band of musicians on board the Mary Rose, employed to provide entertainment.

Leather book covers have survived, although the paper pages have long since disappeared. Quill pens and ink pots were also found. But not everyone could read and write, which is why some objects are marked with their owner’s graffiti, a personal mark to show they own something.

The crew of the Mary Rose

Not much is known of specific individuals who drowned on the Mary Rose; only the name of Vice Admiral Sir George Carew is known.

 

A study of the crew’s belongings and their bones suggests they were young, strong and dressed with some comfort and elegance.

 

Human remains

We only have remains of around 45% of the crew, but the collection still tells us much about life in Tudor times.

The fact that the crew all died at once makes the human remains found at the wreck of the Mary Rose extremely important for research. This really is a cross section of a community at one moment in time, so we can study an entire population at once, looking at the age range, the health and their professions.

The bones of a total of 179 individuals were found during the excavations of the Mary Rose, including 92 fairly complete skeletons. Analysis has shown that all were male, and most of them were young adults. Some were in fact no more than 13 years old, and up to 80% were under 30.

The skeletons point to the crew being of English origin, most likely from the West Country. A few skeletons indicate that some of the crew hailed from continental Europe.

Researchers are continuing to analyse the skeletons, looking at blood groupings, DNA and isotopes. Chemical analysis of the bones can show if someone had an illness, as the bone would have been affected, and broken or damaged. Bones also give an indication as to someone’s profession, or an injury they sustained. For instance, the fusing of vertebrae can indicate that someone was involved in heavy manual work, which has helped experts suggest that a group of skeletons was actually an entire gun crew. This research is regarded as invaluable to the understanding of many diseases and for the development of medicine.