Going ballistic! Science meets conservation on The Mary Rose | The Mary Rose
Going ballistic! Science meets conservation on The Mary Rose
Ahead of British Science Week, The Mary Rose's Head of Conservation, Dr Eleanor Schofield announces her latest project: preserving Henry VIII's 1200+ cannonballs in partnership with University College London and Diamond Light Source

In a ground-breaking partnership between The Mary Rose, UCL and Diamond Light Source, the Mary Rose's Head of Conservation, Dr Eleanor Schofield and her colleagues are working at the cutting edge of conservation science to protect and preserve the huge haul of cannonballs found on Henry VIII's flagship.

But in a contradictory twist, the only way to uncover how to preserve them is to sacrifice some of them. Dr Schofield explains: "This is conservation science at its most cutting edge. We have taken just 12 of the cannonballs - less than 1% of the Mary Rose's stock but enough to provide statistical validity of our findings - to investigate different methods of conservation through synchrotron science. Our cannonball sample is unique in that they were all raised from the sea at the same time, made at the same time, and are of very similar construction as only one iron blast furnace existed in Britain at the time of the Mary Rose's construction. This means that once we've found the solution, then the cannonballs can be preserved for generations to come and the science made available globally to all those whose conservation work involves maritime or iron-rich artefacts."

Dr Schofield is working with PhD student Hayley Simon from UCL Institute of Archaeology and Diamond Light Source. Diamond is the UK's national synchrotron and offers many non-destructive techniques that can be used to unlock the secrets of ancient treasures and explore ways to conserve artefacts ranging from ancient scrolls, bones, woods, paintings and materials to maritime treasures like The Mary Rose, the famous Tudor Ship sunk in 1545 and raised from the sea in 1982.

Seawater and iron are not compatible, causing corrosion that eats away at the metal and weakens its structure. Though the 1200+ cannonballs began as a relatively similar set, since excavation they have been treated by different conservation methods.  Diamond’s bright light X-rays make it possible to visualise the differences in the corrosion profiles and trace them to the treatments applied.

In a paper published today, the results of the bright X-rays have revealed detailed maps of the elements involved in the corrosive process.  This allows an unprecedented insight into conservation on a molecular scale. This is crucial information that will help protect this cultural heritage for many decades to come.

With over 1,200 cannonballs, the search for a solution was imperative. Already much has been achieved through the research carried out at Diamond on the wood from the main ship, monitoring its treatment and current display environment and developing new conservation treatments. After consulting with Mary Rose curators, the decision was made in 2016 to cut segments from 6 of the 12 cannonballs, some of which were showing signs of damage, in order to save the rest.

Dr Eleanor Schofield continues: "We knew that we needed to really delve into the material and find out what was going on, and that this would require destructive sampling. This decision was not taken lightly, and was justified by sacrificing a small percentage of our collection for the benefit of the rest and other collections around the world which suffer the same problem."

Hayley Simon, who is now part way through her PhD adds: “These results represent a first step towards the development of new protective techniques. We are launching next a long duration experiment, which will observe changes in the corrosion product during long-term immersion in various conservation treatments to monitor their effects.”

Dr Schofield concludes: “People often ask me what science has to do with the Mary Rose; the answer is ‘everything’! Facilities like Diamond allow us to find ways of conserving ancient artefacts – we need the detail Diamond offers because this process often starts at the cellular, molecular and atomic levels. Science is a vital part of conservation, and it’s great to know that we’re playing our part in preserving our cultural heritage.”

Corroded Iron Shot
Corroded Iron Shot Close Up
Hayley Simon prepping iron shot samples for the beamline
Dr Eleanor Schofield with part of a corroded iron shot – one of 12 (1% of the total collection of 1240 cannon balls) – which they are being allowed to ‘destructively sample’.

A video produced by Diamond Light Source and UCL Institute of Archaeology