It was once a simple everyday tool but the shovel in Christopher Dobbs’ hands was the most remarkable thing he had ever held.
The archaelogist and diver had scooped up layers of mud from the seabed to find the buried equipment.
And as he eagerly inspected the mundane object, the amazing reality struck him – he was the first person to have touched this for 500 years.
Chris was a diver on the wreck of Tudor warship Mary Rose and despite the fact that he had uncovered dozens of buried historical treasures, it was the simple shovel that left him in awe.
‘I think it was the fact that it was such an ordinary thing that made this particular piece so extraordinary. As I held it up under water, it just really hit me. The last person to hold this was a Tudor sailor.’
Chris is among hundreds of divers who have memories of excavating Henry VIII’s favourite ship, which sank beneath the Solent waves in 1545.
As we approach the 30th anniversary of the raising of the hull on October 11, recollections of the decades-long project to uncover the Mary Rose are resurfacing too.
Chris, now 55, had just completed his archaeology studies at university when he was brought on board in the late ’70s for the wreck diving programme.
Like most people he was a volunteer but became one of the professional maritime archaeologists on the job, supervising work.
He recalls his first dive down to the wreck: ‘It was very dark and gloomy so you couldn’t really see anything.
‘But of course it’s the sediment in the water causing the gloominess that also preserved the
ship and all these wonderful artefacts.’
One of the strangest finds was an almost complete skeleton of a ships’ dog and Chris reveals that it was his wife Chrissie who uncovered this.
Divers will never forget the excitement of digging up so many different remnants of Tudor life – about 19,000 artefacts were uncovered in all.
‘You never knew what you would come up with each day,’ says Chris.
‘Tankards, a pouch with a comb. A lot of the pieces were everyday items that ordinary Tudor sailors used. But that is what makes this collection so special.
‘Other historical objects in museums are usually the belongings of royalty and the upper classes.
‘This collection covers all levels of society. It’s really a snapshot of one day in Tudor history.’
Part of the ship’s hull, which was preserved because it was buried in mud, and some of the artefacts have been on display at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard for decades.
But the collection will soon be housed in the new £35m Mary Rose Museum, which is now scheduled to open early next year.
‘It’s such a wonderful thing,’ says Chris. ‘They had this vision in the ’70s and now it’s being realised with this new museum.’
The search and discovery for the Mary Rose was the result of the dedication of Alexander McKee.
In 1965, in conjunction with the Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club, he initiated project Solent Ships, a plan to examine a number of known wrecks in the Solent.
The Mary Rose was eventually discovered using sonar and two decades of diving and excavating resulted in the ship being raised.
Chris describes McKee, who died in 1992, and Margaret Rule, who took charge of the archaeological operation, as ‘inspirational’.
He also took part in a few dives with Prince Charles whose interest in the project helped to raise its profile.
‘He was extremely competent and did a great deal to boost morale. It was fantastic to have him involved.’
Chris was also involved in the raising of the ship, a touch and go operation of several months, which used innovative and previously untried techniques and technology.
Divers tunnelled under the hull which was then raised on jacks to a lifting frame and transferred to a cradle for the recovery of the ship.
‘This was all new but we were pretty confident about it. Still, it was likened to raising half an eggshell from the seabed,’ recalls Chris.
During the historic moment, when the Mary Rose broke the waves and the world looked on in awe, the diver was actually under water doing a job. And then he had to deal with a tense moment when the lifting platform slipped.
But there was plenty of time for celebration later and everyone enjoyed a few drinks at the end of the long operation.
Chris says the project had a major impact on the lives of the volunteers and the public.
‘It was such an opportunity and it raised awareness that we have this great underwater heritage.’
Now he’s looking forward to celebrating and reflecting on the significance of the project.
‘This wasn’t happening for personal or corporate gain, but for the wider public to enjoy the collection and learn things we didn’t know about Tudor life.
‘That was quite forward thinking for the ’70s. And now future generations can really reap the benefits.’
REUNION AND ANNIVERSARY
When the Mary Rose broke the surface of the Solent on October 11, 1982, hundreds of divers who had worked tirelessly on the ship partied all evening.
And soon it will be time for the volunteers and archaeologist supervisors to celebrate again for the 30th anniversary of the raising of the wreck.
Dr Lesley Runnalls, one of the volunteer divers, is trying to track down as many people who worked on the ship as possible.
Lesley is busy looking through archives for names. Her work will also result in a roll call of honour which will be displayed digitally in the new Mary Rose Museum.
There are plans for several events on and after the October 11 anniversary but only one has been revealed. Paying passengers will be taken to the wreck site where there will be a toast and longbow-firing ceremony.
Divers who would like to take part in the reunion can contact the Mary Rose Trust on (023) 9275 0521.
BUILT IN 1510
The Mary Rose was built around 1510 as part of Henry VIII’s programme to boost the navy.
Faced with a threat from the French, as well as a strong and potentially hostile Scottish force, the king focused on building up the fleet with technologically advanced warships.
The Mary Rose is thought to have been constructed in Portsmouth and named after the king’s sister Mary and the Tudor emblem, the rose.
She sank in July 1545 after leading the English fleet out of Portsmouth Harbour to engage the French.
FROM SOARING ACROSS THE SKY TO DIVING TO BOTTOM OF THE SEA
In the 1970s Lesley Runnalls was living a life of opposites and extremes.
One day she would be on the seabed and the next soaring at 60,000 feet faster than the speed of sound.
She might be digging around in mud or dolled up to perfection looking after wealthy passengers.
And on any given day Lesley would either be diving and delving through historical treasures or travelling in the most technologically advanced way.
The diver on the Mary Rose wreck balanced those voluntary duties with her job as an air stewardess on Concorde.
‘I used to spend all my annual leave working at the Mary Rose site,’ says Lesley, more than 30 years on. ‘Then I would be serving passengers. I had to try and cover up all the cracks and scrapes on my hands and of course the nail varnish would go back on.’
Lesley, who lived near Reading, came down to Portsmouth regularly because she had become fascinated with the ship.
‘We were called keeny divers because that’s what we were,’ she laughs. ‘It was a phenomenally important element of history and the project was at the cutting edge of science. Everyone was learning so much and it was incredibly exciting.’
Lesley was already a diver and underwater photographer when she met Margaret Rule, who led the archaeological operation, at a conference and was invited to join excavations.
Her double life wasn’t so unusual among the hundreds of volunteers who came from a huge range of backgrounds and professions.
And now Lesley is attempting to get as many people as possible together for a reunion to celebrate the anniversary of the raising of the ship (see reunion panel).
Lesley’s own remarkable recollections include uncovering artefacts in the barber-surgeon’s cabin. She remembers finding a pot of ointment which still had the thumb print of the last person who had used the balm.
The whole experience made such an impact on her that she embarked on years of study and ended up with a completely different career – Dr Lesley Runnalls is now a marine geologist.
‘It made a big impact on a lot of people I think,’ she says. ‘I just found it fascinating that the ship was teaching us so much about history.’