Raising the Mary Rose
Returning the Mary Rose to the surface
A huge team of divers, archaeologists and scientists was involved in raising the Mary Rose. Amateurs and professionals alike were dedicated to the cause, and the project broke new ground in diving and conservation techniques.
The search for and discovery of the Mary Rose was a result of the dedication of one man, the late Alexander McKee. In 1965 in conjunction with the Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club, McKee initiated ‘Project Solent Ships’ to investigate wrecks in the Solent. His real hope was to find the Mary Rose.
By using sonar scans, the team discovered a strange shape underneath the seabed. Alexander strongly suspected he had found his quest. Between 1968 and 1971, a team of volunteer divers explored the area. Using dredgers, water jets and airlifts, they began to excavate and were encouraged by the appearance of stray pieces of timber.
The climax came when diver Percy Ackland found three of the port frames of the Mary Rose on the 5th May 1971.
Frames, planking and deck beams were seen by divers at the wreck, and a series of limited excavations outside the ship were carried out to find out how much might have survived.
In 1978 a trench across the wreck at the bow proved that two decks survived in situ at this point. The team decided to excavate the ship in its entirety, and formed the Mary Rose Trust in 1979 with H.R.H. Prince Charles as president. Full-time staff were appointed to carry out the work of excavating the ship and her contents.
Over 500 volunteer divers, and many more volunteers on shore, helped with the work.
In March 1979 the salvage vessel Sleipner was moored on site. This large vessel meant that divers and finds staff could work in shifts, accelerating the diving programme. The project became a professional one, with full-time archaeologists, finds staff, administrators, conservators and fundraisers.
Divers carefully used trowels and airlifts, gently wafting silt away from delicate artefacts with their hands. The site was divided up using a grid of bright yellow pipe, so divers could find their exact position. All artefacts and timbers found were carefully surveyed and recorded.
When brought to the surface, artefacts were stored in a controlled environment. Complete chests were brought up intact so they could be excavated in carefully controlled conditions.
A committee was set up to consider many different methods of raising the hull. They decided to use a purpose-built lifting frame that would be attached by wires to steel bolts passing through the hull at carefully selected points. These points were spread evenly across the section of the ship, mainly in the major structural beams.
The giant floating crane Tog Mor was used for this extremely precise operation.
The tubular steel lifting frame was placed in position and supported on four legs above the wreck. The hull was wired to the frame from the bolts. Hydraulic jacks then raised the hull a few critical centimetres to lift it from the suction effect of the silt below.
Hanging from the frame, the hull could now be transferred into a steel cradle that was in place on the seabed to the west of the wreck. When the weather and tide were favourable, the lifting frame was raised by the crane Tog Mor, and the hull was moved above the cradle.
Safely in the cradle and supported from above and below, the hull was given a final lift. Air bags gave it essential cushioning. The whole package, weighing 570 tonnes, was lifted into the air and placed onto the deck of a barge ready to be towed ashore. This was then taken to the safe haven of the Royal Naval Base, Portsmouth.
Once ashore, the Mary Rose was wrapped in protective foam and polythene and constantly sprayed to keep her wet. She was housed just behind HMS Victory and a hall was built around her.
The ship was constantly sprayed with chilled and recycled fresh water. This prevented the wood from drying out, and stopped bacteria growing on the timbers.
Members of the public could come and view the ship from a viewing bridge. In 1985 she was turned upright and titanium supports were installed to support her. Meanwhile archaeological work was going on in the ship itself, with the first priority being to clean out as much of the sediment as possible.
Once the ship had been turned upright, the team was able to replace the deck timbers. Any missing timbers were replaced with specially manufactured titanium beams. All the timbers and features were photographed and documented before being reinstalled.
The last timber was put into place in 1993. In 1994 the conservation spray was changed to Polyethylene Glycol (PEG), a wax that gradually replaces the water in the timbers. Since 2004 we have been using a more concentrated form of PEG which coats the outer layers of the timbers to seal them. These were switched off in the first half of 2013. Now the hull will be dried out in environmentally controlled conditions.
Most of the 19,000 artefacts found at the wreck were cleaned and recorded aboard the diving vessel. Once ashore, an artefact would be documented, cleaned and photographed. The project was at the cutting edge of marine archaeology and in fact helped to pioneer many of the techniques now used in the preservation of waterlogged materials.
Wood was preserved with PEG and then freeze-dried. All objects were held in an appropriate storage environment while awaiting conservation. After the artefacts were conserved they went on display in a historic boathouse nearby, and will soon be displayed in the new museum opening in 2013.
With funding from the Ministry of Defence, major dives took place between 2003 and 2005, when archaeologists began recovering further objects and structure.
Over 50cms of sediment had since accumulated over the site. This had to be removed using an underwater vehicle with a suction pipe that was operated from the surface. Evidence suggested that the seabed was being disturbed nearby and was drifting over the site. The divers noted the position of all artefacts found in these later dives by using acoustic poles that sent signals to pinpoint an object’s position.
The divers had cameras in their helmets, enabling the team to see what they could see. Members of the team could also communicate with the divers and supervise their progress.
Some facts and figures
- Excavation work between 1979 and 1982 took 28,000 dives and 12 man years on the seabed.
- 60 million people worldwide watched the raising of the hull.
- At the end of the diving in 2005 a significant portion of port side bow structure was surveyed and reburied with an industrial geotextile called Terram. This should ensure the preservation of the area, keeping it safe for future generations. A 5m long section of the stem was also raised together with a large bow anchor.
The site is still a protected wreck site and regular monitoring dives still take place.