Wednesday 23 September 2015

Task 26: Admire the Tudor treasure trove at the Mary Rose Museum

When I was 9 years old, I was fascinated by archaeology. I was given a book for Christmas called 'All about archaeology' by Anne Terry White and I used to read and re-read her stories about ancient hidden treasures. My absolute favourite was the one describing the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Saxon ship in Suffolk. Needless to say, my burning ambition was to become a world famous archaeologist. 

As I grew up, I let go of my obsession for archaeology and hidden treasures. Then on 11 October 1982, the hull of the Mary Rose, Henry XIII's favourite flagship, was lifted out of the water a mile from Portsmouth Harbour, and in a flash my former obsession was re-triggered. The mystery - why did the Mary Rose sink? The excitement - all those Tudor warship artefacts. The tragedy - only 35 from the crew of 500 men survived. The envy - if I'd stuck to my childhood dreams, I could have been the female chief archaeologist in charge instead of that lucky lady Margaret Rule.

After many hours of watching the extraordinary salvage operation take place live on my TV screen, did I leg it down to Portsmouth to see the Mary Rose and her treasure trove of artefacts? Somehow life just seemed to get in the way. Until at last, thirty-three years on, it was added to my sixtyat60 list as Task 26. And since Portsmouth is situated somewhere between East Sussex and North Devon, my North Devon-based friend and colleague Rachel agreed (I'm delighted to say I didn't have to press gang her) to accompany me on this childhood-inspired task. 

Last Thursday morning, Rachel and I met at Portsmouth Royal Dockyard and after a vital coffee break to plot our course for the day, we navigated our way to the Mary Rose Museum. The museum building has been designed around the Mary Rose in such a way that she can be observed by visitors whilst the the final stage in the preservation process is completed. Her timbers are being slowly dried out with air pipped through long ducts in tightly controlled conditions, and visitors can only view her from behind glass screens. 

Our first sighting of the Mary Rose was in fact a rather fine model of her. We decided that a photo of me standing next to the model would be reasonable evidence that I was actually at the museum.  

We then entered into the dimly lit viewing gallery and made our way to the first window. I was holding my breath. Back in 1982 when the hull was first brought to the surface, I thought quietly to myself that it didn't seem all that large. So I was preparing to see a structure of very modest proportions. But oh my goodness....there the hull was, towering above me, with a series of decks still attached in an almost perfect cross-section.  I was transfixed! We walked along each of the three viewing decks to gaze at the ship from different levels and angles. Her size isn't conveyed in the photo below at all (and she's somewhat hidden behind the air ducts), but I thought I must show it to you anyway. 

Of course, a key feature of the museum is the Tudor treasure trove of artefacts. There are many instruments of war on display, including beautifully decorated cannons and shot, archers' longbows, swords, small iron guns and the like.  But of more interest to me were the day to day 'living ship' items that have been carefully extracted from the silt. There was the surgeon's hat and his instruments (oh my heavens, that poor crew, the super-large syringe for treating venereal diseases and the trepanning tool would have had me in full flight to the crow's nest) and the cook's kitchen gadgets, including an Aga-like brick oven, two vast cauldrons, and loads of oak storage barrels. I was especially moved by the cook's shoes. 

The museum is about to close for the final phase of restoration, after which the glass screens will be removed and the air ducts dismantled - and then the Mary Rose will once again be on open view to all. And when that day arrives in summer 2016, Rachel and I are determined to be at the front of the queue! A huge thank you to Rachel for being my trusty companion on board the Mary Rose (see below - you can tell I don't know how to take a decent selfie) - a brilliant day at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

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