As the new Mary Rose Museum prepares to open in late spring, we catch up with Alexzandra Hildred, who has worked for the Mary Rose Trust for 34 years, to talk shipwreck diving, Tudor guns and fascinating artefacts.
How did it feel the first time you explored the Mary Rose ship wreck?
Cold, excited, a bit frightened and at times disorientated. It was very much a ‘touchy feely’ experience as the visibility was so bad. It was almost impossible to see your hand in front of your face. I was being led around by another archaeologist who kept trying to talk to me – not impossible, but very much an acquired talent. The only object I recognised (partly due to the persistent muttering of ‘gun’ and ‘bang’ by my companion) was a bronze gun. I felt the entire length from the back of the gun over the lifting lugs in the form of lion heads to the muzzle – it seemed to be extremely long with lots of column-like decorations along its length.
The archaeologists had just confirmed that it was still on its carriage and I could feel the wooden cheeks and one of the huge front wheels. We all realised at this stage that having a gun in this condition at such a high point in the structure could mean that the guns on the decks below could potentially all be in situ – and most were. I had signed up for two weeks and had no idea that 34 years later I would still be intimately associated with the guns!
How does it feel to have been a key part of such a massive transformation of the Mary Rose, from seabed to museum attraction?
I still can’t believe it. Even now when I see the tourist signs to the Mary Rose and Historic Dockyard I get a lump in my throat –I helped to make that happen! Everyone can now share in a bit of Mary Rose magic. I have been so fortunate to have been through every phase, from excavating the artefacts to studying them, devising displays for the first museum and now part of the team developing the museum, linking at last objects with the ship – it is just amazing. The concept of having long galleries directly opposite the ship so that we can put back what we took out in the same place within the mirror image of the hull enables us to recreate the ship as we found her.
What are some of your favourite objects you’ve found during the excavations?
The wonderful small wooden drinking bowls, many of which have simple carved geometric marks or initials, the carved dragons which held the smouldering match used to initiate the firing process on the large guns – all these are highly individual and personal. We also discovered some of the embroidered pouches, complete with their contents. One of these had a tiny lead token which may represent the ‘Black Virgin’ of Rocamadur. This has been a place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages and it is intriguing to think that one of our men may have visited France and undertaken this pilgrimage – the other side is dated 1542. The tokens the site issues today still bear the date on one side, just like the coin we found! Another is the small dog we found outside the cabin of the carpenter – all these enable a deeply personal link to the people and their lives.
What’s the best part of your job?
Identification of something which has not been identified before, replicating and firing the guns and inspiring others to want to continue working on the Mary Rose assemblage.
Why should someone visit the new Mary Rose Museum?
To share in some of the excitement and fascination we had as divers exploring the wreck and to see an unparalleled selection of artefacts in fantastic condition which intimately connect you with the past.
Do you have a few anecdotes about the Mary Rose you could share?
The life of the ship parallels the reign of the most famous King in English history, and he took a personal interest in her, in shipbuilding and in gun founding and weapons. It is our ship, part of Britain’s heritage. Henry VIII, often quoted as being ‘father of the modern navy’, certainly set up the infrastructure which underpinned the nascent navy which was to lead to our overseas Empire. Developments in shipbuilding, gun founding and tactics of warfare at sea sometimes developed but definitely refined during his reign were instrumental in our future as a maritime nation.
As a result of your experiences with the Mary Rose, have you dived any other wrecks off the English coast?
After the ship was lifted in 1982 the press coverage resulting from the Mary Rose excavation raised the profile of shipwrecks in general. The majority of shipwrecks are found by chance diving (often on fishermen’s snags) rather than dedicated searching, and the number of sites found after 1982 increased dramatically. Many of us became involved in the development of the Nautical Archaeology Society and still continue to teach on some of their courses, training divers in a number of skills needed in underwater archaeology.
Alexzandra’s top 10 history and heritage attractions to visit:
- The rest of the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth
- The Royal Armouries in Leeds
- The White Tower in the Tower of London
- Fort Nelson Museum of Artillery in Hampshire
- Hampton Court Palace in Surrey
- The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich
- The Diving Museum in Gosport
- The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford
- The Liverpool Maritime Museum in Liverpool
- SS Great Britain in Bristol
The Mary Rose Museum is set to open in late Spring.
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