Curator's Choice: The Mary Rose

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Easily the most exciting item we excavated underwater was a medicine chest, the earliest sea-going example yet found. It is a wooden chest which was found in the surgeon's cabin on the main gun deck of the Mary Rose in August 1980. It contained the most remarkable group of ointment jars and pottery medicine bottles in addition to razor handles, amputation tools and ready-to-use dressings.

So now we have a unique collection, ranging from peppercorns in a little wooden container, which would have been used for medicinal reasons as well as for seasoning food, to pottery flagons from Germany. These are all a little bit misshapen and I believe they were imported with the medicine. Some of the wooden jars had the ointment still inside them and in one jar we could see where fingers had scooped the ointment out. Seeing those finger- marks really brought it home that archaeology is about people and not things. The ointment has now been analysed and shown to be rather typical of modern homeopathic remedies, in other words it is made up of fats and waxes with herbs like frankincense. This medicine chest, kept on the very busy action stations of the gun deck, contained what was needed to help a wounded soldier - the amputation tools and the cauterizing irons - as well as the medicines for all the normal ails and illnesses of life at sea.

Finding this chest underwater, lifting the lid and seeing this array of medical equipment was one of the most exciting moments of my life. It gives an insight into one particular man, the surgeon, who was on board the Mary Rose when it sank on 19 July 1545.

Margaret Rule is the Director of Research for The Mary Rose Ship Hall and Exhibition, Portsmouth (0705 750521)

(Photograph omitted)