On the 19th July 1545 Henry VIII’s ship the Mary Rose sank in the Solent off Portsmouth with the loss of over 500 lives. In 1982 after 437 years on the sea bed the Mary Rose was brought to the surface once more, and now 35 years later The Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard continues to tell her story for a 21st century audience.
Loving history is all about wanting to know more than you can ever know; the wall of time thwarts the unfulfillable desire to be there experiencing and understanding the moment. Such frustration can never be satisfied, but places like The Mary Rose Museum help history addicts cope; the immediacy and minutiae of the doomed crew’s world documented in over 19.000 artifacts, and the stark skeleton of the hull; silent but speaking volumes empty yet bursting with life.
The passage of time often confuses change for difference; but this museum reminds us emphatically that while how we live our lives has changed, the people who lived them have not. Their everyday needs remain ours, and what they valued we value also.
The ship sank so quickly that many of the crew drowned as they worked; each in an allotted place with the tools of their trade or their personal possessions close by. There are shoes, combs and jewellery, as well as plates, manicure sets, tools, board games and weaponry. A gentleman’s wooden chest when opened was found to be full of personal possessions each in its place still awaiting his return. Just as we pack today for holiday or business so did this gentleman; saying good bye to family excited or nervous about what lay ahead.
It is the immediacy of the artifacts and the life that exudes from them still. Initials are scratched into bowls, cutlery has marked the pewter plates as meals were eaten, there are thumb prints on pottery pots, and the energetic chopping of the ship’s cook is shown by the knife marks on a stove side stool. Time on the sea bed has added to the well-worn appearance of the surgeon’s tools vividly creating a sense of the agony of their well-meant but sometimes misunderstood applications.
You can time travel through these artifacts; as touched, worn and used by people in the past their life unfolds before you. A time tunnel opens and an almost tangible sense of their life reaches you. This is heightened by the forensic reconstruction of some of the victims; recreating nine faces that stare back at you from displays, as well as one life sized model of an archer and a picture of the small dog found by the carpenter’s cabin. Unnervingly life like, and so remarkably like the faces that look back at them. It is like seeing pictures of the victims of a natural disaster or atrocity in a newspaper or on television, and reading about their life, family and lost future. Just as in 2017 it is the human face of a tragedy; with the loss felt no less then as it would be today.
You progress around and upwards viewing the hull and artifacts as you go, until on finally reaching the top and passing through double sealed doors into a controlled environment you can view the remains of the Mary Rose without the glazing used on the lower floors. It is incredible how the wooden hull blackened by time and worn by the actions of the sea and sediment speaks so loudly. The oak used would have been from trees planted in medieval times; cut and fitted green to bend into the curve of the starboard side, of which parts of three decks survive, and to the port side lost to the sea still.
At regular intervals the lights lower and short films of actors recreating the crew appear on the different levels bringing the ship to life. Again, the time travel conundrum of the historian is somewhat eased as the clips show how so much activity and work could be carried out on the ship; your mind fills in gaps and recognises yet again how unsurprisingly similar these people were to us.
The Mary Rose Museum is situated in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard.
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