Mysteries still abound in the drowning of the famous 16th century Royal Navy warship, named Mary Rose. After serving as one of the largest ships in the Tudor navy for over three decades, King Henry VIII’s flagship sank during battle, leading to the death of nearly 400 men. In a recent study, involving the use of Raman spectroscopy, London-based Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital has revealed that the crew on board the ship was suffering from rickets, a disease caused mainly by malnutrition.
Constructed in 1510, Mary Rose’ s long and successful career included numerous battles against Brittany, Scotland and France. In 1536, it was rebuilt into a major warship, capable of carrying heavy guns and weaponry. On 19th July, 1545, the ship went down in the waters, just off the coast of Portsmouth, while fighting an approaching troop of French invaders. Of the 400 men aboard the ship, only 35 survived, marking a casualty rate of over 90-percent. However, the unique soil conditions of the Solent silt meant that the wreck, along with the bones of those dead, remained well preserved.
It was only in 1982 that the wreck of Mary Rose was salvaged from the seabed, in what is probably one of the most expensive and complicated underwater archaeology projects. The artillery and the artifacts, retrieved from the shipwreck, indeed provide valuable information regarding the life of common people in Tudor England. As part of a recent study conducted by the University College London (UCL), in collaboration with the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Mary Rose Trust, Stanmore-based Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital examined a pair of tibia bones, belonging to the dead sailors.
The bones, procured from the Trust, exhibited certain abnormalities in shape. The study, headed by Professor Allen Goodship, made use of a new laser technology, called Raman spectroscopy, to analyse the specimen. In this, a monochromatic laser beam is used to irradiate an object. The changes in the energy of the incident laser photons are then measured and examined to get necessary information. The non-destructive process assigns a “fingerprint” of sorts, by which different molecules can be distinctly identified. Speaking about the technology, Jemma Kerns, a scientist working on the project, said:
This is the first time that this laser technology has been used to study bone disease in archaeological human bone. We have identified chemical changes in the bones, without damaging them. There is strong evidence to suggest that many of the sailors had suffered from childhood rickets and we hope to apply the Raman technique to the study of modern day rickets.
Upon examination, the bone specimens revealed certain deformities and chemical abnormalities, that were most likely caused by rickets. The study, funded by a £1.7 million (approx. $2.6 million) Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grant, confirmed that the crew on board Mary Rose was suffering from the metabolic bone disease. What makes the findings all the more significant is that they show us how poor the diet of an average man, in the 1500s, really was. Alex Hildred of the Mary Rose Trust said:
The Mary Rose Trust has the responsibility for the remains of over 179 individuals who perished with the ship. Their provenance is absolute; they represent the crew of an English warship in July 1545. The human remains have potential to make a contribution to the public through research, education, display and interpretation. Their use to confirm the presence and prevalence of metabolic bone disease in the 16th century is one of these contributions.
Image Credits: Geoff Hunt / Alamy / Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital