hidden treasure

A famous Tudor-era ship is being eaten alive — but scientists have a solution

A comeback nearly 500 years in the making.

Originally Published: 
Ship Mary Rose in Portsmouth

The year was 1545 and Henry VIII favorite naval ship — the Mary Rose — was embroiled in a battle against a French armada off England’s southern coast when the ship took a risky turn and caught a deadly gust of wind.

In a matter of moments, the 34-year-old ship collapsed on its side into the Solent straight, spilling 500 crew into the murky depths — only 35 of whom survived. The Mary Rose itself sank deep to the ocean’s floor where it would sleep for over 400-years until scientists and conservators dredged it up in 1982.

For the first time since its recovery, scientists are now able to use new X-ray scattering and chemical analysis techniques to see into the dried-out wood itself and identify conservation risks firsthand.

Eleanor Schofield is head of conservation & collections care at the Mary Rose Trust and a co-author of a new paper on the paper. She tells Inverse that while the ship survived its water-logged rest, it’s certainly worse for wear. Unlike its glory days, the Mary Rose is now plagued by cellulose-eating bacteria from the depths of the ocean that are destroying the ship’s wooden hull from within.

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Matter, scientists are now in a race against time to identify and target these microbes before it's too late — and so far they’re winning.

“Some of the compounds we have found in the wood can eventually break down and degrade components of the wood, causing irreparable damage,” Schofield says. “If we can map what is in there and where it is, this is invaluable information for developing future conservation strategies.”

If there’s one positive takeaway from Henry the 8th’s reign, it’s the increase of England naval power from 5 to over 50 ships, including the Mary Rose and Peter Pomegranate as his first additions.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

What’s new — While this study has uncovered never-before-seen details about the ship's wooden hull, that doesn’t necessarily mean the ship or its conservators have been idle since the 1980s, says Schofield.

“Marine archaeological wood has to go through a conservation consolidation process to account for the loss of wood ... and then dried in a controlled way to remove excess water,” says Schofield. “The earlier years saw much work on understanding the wood and what type of treatment it would require, and then active conservation took place until 2016.”

It was only after this first process had been completed that conservation scientists were able to look more deeply at how “hundreds of years under the sea” had impacted the wood. Not to mention, X-ray scattering technique used in this study simply wasn’t available in the 1980s.

“It is a bit like a treasure hunt.”

In fact, it was only developed in 2013, the study’s first author and associate professor of Chemistry at the University of Copenhagen, Kirsten Jensen, tells Inverse.

“The first paper on the technique came out in 2013 ... and it is still being developed,” Jensen says. “Our study is the first using the technique for studies of cultural heritage objects, it opens for many more to be done!”

Why it matters — Beyond just preserving the Mary Rose, Schofield and Jensen say that what’s especially exciting about this study is how this emerging technique could be used for other artifacts as well. This includes the many Tudor objects recovered from the Mary Rose, Schofield says.

“The shipwreck is of huge importance as alongside the remains of the hull we raised over 19,000 objects depicting Tudor life,” Schofield says. “This ranges from large wooden carriages and cannons to personal items such as combs and shoes ... you find representative items from all levels of society on board the ship.”

To test their new techniques, the team pulled a minuscule wood sample from the ship's hull.

Jensen et al. / Matter

What is X-ray scattering?

To gain this new insight, Jensen explains that the technique is not too different from the kind of CT scan you might have at the doctor.

“By shining X-rays on an object from different angles, we are able to get images of what’s inside it,” explains Jensen. In this case, the team shone X-rays on samples from the ship's hull.

“The difference, however, is that instead of getting an image where the pixels are represented with colors as in a normal CT scan, we get much more information ... For the nanoparticles that we identified in the wood, we were able to identify their composition, their structure, and their size”

This technique allows Jensen and colleagues to peer into the structural information of compounds in the wood itself — like a blueprint. Using this data the team can separate dangerous compounds from “normal” ones to target their removal.

There is one catch though: this method “sees” so much that it’s not always simple to find what they’re looking for.

“The measurements produce very large datasets, so when first going through the data, it is a bit like a treasure hunt, except we don’t know what we are looking for,” Jensen says.

Luckily in the end the team was able to identify several of the compounds, including zinc sulfide nanomaterials responsible for “acid attacks” in the wood.

The Mary Rose isn’t likely to ever sail again — but the treasures to holds on land are just a plentiful.

Chris Ison - PA Images/PA Images/Getty Images

What’s next — This is only just the beginning of Mary Rose’s glow-up. Next on the agenda for this team is to develop methods to target these newly identified compounds and remove them. One way to do this is to develop magnetic treatments that can target and remove particular harmful nanoparticles — like a pore strip pulling up blackheads.

With any luck, these techniques will help restore Henry VIII favorite ship to some of its former glory.

Abstract: Preserving the Mary Rose oak hull for future generations is a major challenge due to the highly heterogeneous nature of waterlogged wooden artifacts, which contain polycrystalline, amorphous, and nanostructured materials that test traditional characterization methods. Effective conservation requires detailed knowledge of the distribution and chemical nature of these species to develop strategies for preventing multiple chemo-mechanical degradation pathways. Here, we apply synchrotron-based computed tomography total scattering methods to the Mary Rose keelson wood that provides valuable position-resolved structural information on multiple embedded species of different length and concentration scales. We identify 5 nm zinc sulfide nanoparticles in the wood, presumably deposits from bacteria operating on the sulfur energy cycle under the anaerobic conditions on the seabed. These are identified as precursors to acid attack on the wood upon removal to an aerobic environment. These insights inform not only next-generation conservation strategies, but also the efficacy and unforeseen issues of previous treatments.

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