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From a Nobody to a Somebody - Bringing the Crew of the Mary Rose to Life

21/05/2014 13:23 BST | Updated 20/07/2014 10:59 BST

When people think of the Mary Rose their first thought is of the remains of the hull that were so dramatically raised from the Solent in 1982, and maybe the artefacts that were found on board. It's easy to forget that, when the Mary Rose sank, she was fully crewed by around 500 men, all but thirty of whom were trapped on board when she went down. But who were these men, and what do we know about them?

We don't have any records of who was on board the ship at the time of sinking; the only name we have listed is George Carew, Vice Admiral of the Fleet and commanding officer of the Mary Rose. There are a few others, for example the captain is sometimes named as Roger Grenville, the Surgeon seems to have the initials WE and there's the tankard and bowl inscribed with the name 'Ny Coep', but other than these hints we have no way of finding out who was on board. Surprisingly, there is no evidence of records for the survivors, other than an anonymous Flemish sailor. Not even a memorial service for those who were lost is recorded, including the officers, who would have been from noble families.

The major problem is that, in 1545, if you weren't a 'somebody', you were a nobody and this tends to translate itself into how we view people from the past. Henry VIII was a character with a wife or six and a big personality; the sailors are 'extras', doing their jobs in the background. This is something we at the Mary Rose wanted to get away from, and present the crew not as sailors, but as people.

A lot of this can be determined from their belongings. Several objects, such as wooden knife sheaves and leather flasks appear to have been decorated by their owners, the presence of pocket sundials, probably not the most convenient timepieces on a ship, suggests that like today, some of the men of the Mary Rose loved a gadget. One of the carpenters owned a manicure set and complete toilet set, clearly he liked to look after himself! Another owned a 15th century styled pewter tankard, suggesting either it was a family heirloom or he'd picked up a nice antique somewhere. There are board games, both purchased and handmade, and tiny dice for a spot of illicit gambling. We even found a pot containing three cloakpins, usually worn by women, and may have been a gift one of the crew was planning to give to a loved one when he returned from sea.

Forensic science has also told us a lot about the crew of the Mary Rose. Oxygen isotopes found within the crew allow us to determine the latitude, altitude, temperature and even how far away from the sea someone lived as a child. You can't narrow it down to a specific town, but it's good enough for determining nationality. Despite some reports that the crew were mostly of Spanish or Portuguese origin, they appear to have mostly been from southern England or Wales.

We can also tell from the state of their teeth that the majority of them were in some dental pain at the time of the sinking, due to either rotten teeth or large painful abscesses. We know that during childhood many of them had a diet that was so poor they contracted illnesses such as rickets and scurvy, which cleared up in adulthood. We can spot a life-long member of a guncrew, as the ligaments in their spines fuse from the strain of constant heavy lifting in a confined space, and that occasionally, they would suffer injuries such as snapped knee ligaments, forcing them to change jobs, going from the gunbay to the galley. We know that one of the crew had Bilateral Perthes, a condition that causes the pelvic joints to deform, making walking difficult, and that this lead to him having what we would now call a 'desk job', working as the ship's purser. We can tell which members of the crew were longbowmen, due to a condition called Os Acromiale, where the shoulder blade doesn't fuse correctly due to regular flexing of the shoulder with a large weight, caused by such motions as pulling back a 100lb warbow. There's a crewmember who, at some point in his adult life, got an arrow embedded in his skull, an injury which he survived, confirmed by signs of healing. We can just imagine him telling anyone who would listen about his near miss for years after, prior to his death on the Mary Rose.

The Mary Rose Museum stands as a memorial to these men, but rather than concentrating on how they died, it tells a far more important story, that of how they lived and worked, allowing us to appreciate them as the people they were almost 500 years ago.