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A Time Capsule of Tudor History : Artifacts From 1545 Shipwreck on View at Museum

August 07, 1986|WILLIAM S. MURPHY | Murphy is a Times photographer. and

July 15, 1545, was recorded as a warm, sunny and almost windless day off the coast of Portsmouth, England. King Henry VIII, surrounded by courtiers gathered at Southsea Castle, watched the progress of his fleet, making its way into the English Channel to repel a French invasion.

The British monarch gazed at the panorama of 60 of his warships about to do battle with a vastly superior armada sent by the French king, Francis I. One particular vessel a mile from shore caught his eye. It was the Mary Rose, which had been named for his sister when launched in 1511. Suddenly a wind from shore filled its sails. The ship listed to starboard as the sea rushed through her open gun ports, and the Mary Rose capsized.

Anti-boarding nets stretched across the deck trapped the crew and soldiers like a school of fish. Their screams could be heard ashore as the ship disappeared in less than a minute, settling in silt at a depth of 40 feet. Seven hundred men drowned, including its captain, Richard Grenville, and the vice admiral of the English fleet, George Carew. There were only 30 survivors, mostly longbowmen stationed in the fighting tops. The men who perished would lie entombed for more than four centuries, trapped in a time capsule of English Tudor history.

The frame of the Mary Rose was finally brought to the surface in the fall of 1982 after 17 years of one of the most ambitious underwater archeological projects ever attempted. During this time more than 17,000 objects and timbers were recovered.

They ranged from an 11-foot cast-bronze cannon to a tiny pair of dice a sailor had once rolled across one of the ship's oak tables.

Artifacts from the Mary Rose are now on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park in an exhibition made possible by the Armand Hammer Foundation and Occidental Petroleum Corp. in cooperation with the Mary Rose Trust in England.

Margaret Rule, archeological director of the Mary Rose Trust who came from London for the opening of the exhibit, has been involved with the recovery project since its beginning. An article she wrote for National Geographic magazine in 1983 about the quest for the ship brought worldwide interest in the Mary Rose and the efforts of volunteers who helped bring the wreckage and the ship's contents to the surface. Between 1979 and 1982, up to 50 divers worked each day from dawn to dusk. Rule was one.

"I had never dived before in my career as an archeologist," she related, "but I learned quickly. There had been prior attempts to recover the Mary Rose; the first after the ship sank, and guns were removed during the 1800s. However, what had prevented others before us was the nature of the Solent, the channel off Portsmouth. It consists of banks of sand, fine mud and silt that is constantly stirred by tidal actions."

Storm Exposed Timbers

Rule credited the vision of Alexander McKee, a scuba diver and military historian for initiating the search for the ship. Finally, in 1971, storms exposed the ends of the vessel's timbers in the silt, and Rule and McKee knew they had found the Mary Rose. The silt that hid the ship had formed a protective cocoon over most of the artifacts.

"We had to protect the wreck from looters," Rule continued. "We formed a Mary Rose Committee and leased the site from the Crown for one pound a year. After we recruited a team of volunteer divers and technicians, we formed the nonprofit Mary Rose Trust to direct operations and raise funds. Prince Charles, who made nine dives on the wreck, agreed to become president of the trust, and I was appointed chief archeologist."

Prince Charles would later write that what had been a part-time project for many of the volunteers became the greatest underwater archeological operation ever seen. He also later commented on the diving conditions in the Solent where those working underwater could barely see in front of their face plates: "It was like diving in cold lentil soup."

Removed Piece by Piece

Rule described how the artifacts were removed piece by piece during the years of recovery before the remains of the hull were raised in 1982 and placed in a dry dock at the Portsmouth Naval base within a few yards of the spot where it was built 471 years earlier. The vessel now occupies Ship Hall at the Mary Rose Museum on the naval base.

The Mary Rose was a vessel of 700 tons called a carrack, the only one of its kind ever discovered. Her masts were either recovered immediately after the sinking or drifted away as flotsam during the centuries that followed.

As the team of archeologists under Rule catalogued and cleaned the artifacts discovered, a picture of life aboard a fighting ship of the era began to emerge.

The Mary Rose's main ordnance consisted of 71 guns in addition to a variety of smaller weapons that could be hand-held when fired. One type was called a hailshot piece, which fired sharp-edged cubes of iron that were known as dice shot. Examples of the weaponry are on display.

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