X-Ray Analysis Sheds Light on Artifacts from Henry VIII's Warship

Image of the Mary Rose. Courtesy of Johnny Black.

Twenty-first century x-ray technology has allowed University of Warwick (Coventry, United Kingdom) scientists to peer back through time at the production of the armor worn by the crew of Henry VIII’s favored warship, the Mary Rose.

Three artifacts believed to be remains of chainmail recovered from the recovered hull have been analyzed by an international team of scientists led by the University of Warwick and Ghent University (Ghent, Belgium) using a state-of-the-art x-ray facility called X-ray Materials Science (XMaS) beamline.

Three Brass Links

They analyzed three brass links as part of continuing scientific investigations into the artifacts recovered during the excavation of the wreck in the Solent. These links have often been found joined to make a sheet or a chain and are most likely to be from a suit of chainmail armor. By using several x-ray techniques available via the XMaS beamline to examine the surface chemistry of the links, the team was able to peer back through time to the armor’s production and reveal that these links were manufactured from an alloy of 73% copper and 27% zinc.

“The results indicate that in Tudor times, brass production was fairly well controlled and techniques such as wire drawing were well developed,” says Emeritus Professor Mark Dowsett from the University of Warwick’s Department of Physics. “Brass was imported from Ardennes and also manufactured at Isleworth. I was surprised at the consistent zinc content between the wire links and the flat ones. It’s quite a modern alloy composition.”

High Sensitivity Analysis

The cleaned and conserved link. Photo courtesy of Mark Dowsett with permission from the <i>Mary Rose</i> Trust.The exceptionally high sensitivity analysis revealed traces of heavy metals, such as lead and gold, on the surface of the links, hinting at further history to the armor yet to be uncovered.

“The heavy metal traces are interesting because they don’t seem to be part of the alloy but embedded in the surface,” Dowsett explains. “One possibility is that they were simply picked up during the production process from tools used to work lead and gold as well. Lead, mercury, and cadmium, however, arrived in the Solent during WWII from the heavy bombing of Portsmouth Dockyard. Lead and arsenic also came into the Solent from rivers like the Itchen over extended historical periods.”

“In a Tudor battle, there might be quite a lot of lead dust produced by the firing of munitions. Lead balls were used in scatter guns and pistols, although stone was used in canon at that time,” Dowsett continues.

History of the Warship

The Tudor warship, the Mary Rose, was one of the first warships that Henry VIII commissioned soon after he ascended to the throne in 1509. Often considered to be his favorite, the Mary Rose sank on July 19, 1545 in the Solent during a battle with a French invasion fleet. The ship sank to the seabed, and over time the silts covered and preserved its remains, thereby serving as a remarkable record of Tudor naval engineering and shipboard life.

Similarly conserved, but not cleaned link. Photo courtesy of Mark Dowsett with permission from the <i>Mary Rose</i> Trust.In 1982, the remaining part of the hull was raised and is now housed in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth alongside many thousands of the 19,000 artifacts that were also recovered, many of which were remarkably well preserved by the Eocene clays. After recovery, the three artifacts were subjected to different cleaning and conservation treatments (distilled water, benzotriazole [BTA] solution, and cleaning followed by coating with BTA and silicone oil) to prevent corrosion. This research also analyzed the surface chemistry of the brass links to assess and compare the levels of corrosion between the different techniques. It was found that all of the techniques were effective at preventing corrosion since being recovered.

“The analysis shows that basic measures to remove chlorine followed by storage at reduced temperature and humidity form an effective strategy even over 30 years,” adds Dowsett.

Goals of XMaS

XMaS is owned by the Universities of Liverpool and Warwick and is located in Grenoble, France, at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF). It works with more than 90 active research groups, representing several hundred researchers, in diverse fields ranging across materials science, physics, chemistry, engineering, and biomaterials. XMaS also contributes to societal challenges such as energy storage and recovery, tackling climate change, the digital economy, and advances in healthcare.

It is a National Research Facility and is currently undergoing a major upgrade thanks to £7.2 million ($8.96 million) funding from the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

“XMaS is extremely versatile and flexible in the analytical strategies which can be devised and implemented,” says Professor Mieke Adriaens, head of the Electrochemistry and Surface Analysis Group at Ghent University. “What’s more, the beamline scientists are amongst the best we’ve encountered anywhere. It is fascinating to examine ancient technology using specially developed analytical methods, which can then be applied to modern materials, too. It was also a real privilege to be allowed access to these unique artifacts and to play a part in unravelling their story.”

Links having the appearance of copper. Photo courtesy of Mark Dowsett with permission from the <i>Mary Rose</i> Trust.

“This study clearly shows the power of combining sophisticated techniques such as those available at a synchrotron source,” says Professor Eleanor Schofield, Head of Conservation at the Mary Rose. “We can glean information, not only on the original production, but also on how it has reacted to being in the marine environment and, crucially, how effective the conservation strategies have been.” 

"We are very pleased that researchers at Warwick are continuing to put our expertise in Analytical Sciences at the forefront of research on important historical artefacts,” says co-author Professor Pam Thomas, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Warwick. “The long tradition of x-ray scattering and diffraction science within the Department of Physics at Warwick continues to give high-quality data and leads to penetrating insight across a wide range of scientific problems. It is testament both to the expertise at the XMaS beamline of ESRF and in the X-Ray Diffraction Research Technology Platform at Warwick.”

* “Synchrotron X-ray diffraction investigation of the surface condition of artifacts from King Henry VIII’s warship the Mary Rose” is published in the Journal of Synchrotron Radiation, DOI: /10.1107/S1600577520001812

Source: University of Warwick, https://warwick.ac.uk/.

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