DNA helps identify Mary Rose archers

A skull recovered from the Mary Rose
A skull recovered from the Mary Rose

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Scientists are using DNA to identify the bones of archers who perished on the Mary Rose.

Researchers say they have developed new techniques to work out which of the bones recovered from Henry VIII’s warship are those of the bowmen, the elite soldiers of their day.

A total of 97 whole or nearly complete skeletons are held at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth.

Among them are the remains of archers who died when the ship sank in the Solent in 1545.

Scientists at Swansea University say that evidence of repetitive stress injuries from continuous longbow practice will help identify them, along with a new method of extracting the relevant DNA from bones recovered from the wreck of the ship.

Nick Owen, a sport and exercise biochemist from the university’s college of engineering, said that over the centuries, the skeletons had been contaminated with other DNA from cockles, molluscs and algae.

Solving that DNA puzzle was like looking for a pint of Guinness in the Irish Sea, he said, but once it could be identified and analysed, it was possible to ascertain where that person was from, and characteristics such as eye and hair colour.

‘The Mary Rose Trust knows a lot about the ship, but not a lot about the people on it’ said Mr Owen.

He said that the archers were the elite warriors of their day.

‘They were 6ft 2in or 6ft 3in, and strapping individuals,’ he said.

‘A longbow was 6ft 6in and made from a particular part of a yew tree to generate incredibly efficient ‘spring’. It was mega hi-tech, and it gave England and Wales military superiority. These archers were the elite athletes of their day.’

Alexzandra Hildred, curator of ordnance at the Mary Rose Trust, said earlier this year: ‘Many of the skeletons recovered show evidence of repetitive stress injuries of the shoulder and lower spine. This could be as a result of them shooting heavy longbows regularly.

‘Being able to quantify the stresses and their effect on the skeleton may enable us at last to isolate an elite group of professional archers from the ship.’

A Swedish expert is working on facial reconstructions of some of the archers, using information gathered at Swansea.