Margaret Rule: Archaeological director who led the teams that raised the 'Mary Rose' and excavated Fishbourne Roman Palace

Rule and her volunteers made hundreds of dives, and with meticulous planning and great dexterity they recovered an abundance of treasures

Martin Childs
Monday 27 April 2015 17:29 BST
Rule is presented with a model of the 'Mary Rose' by the former Prime
Minister, Edward Heath, at the 1983
Ideal Homes Exhibition
Rule is presented with a model of the 'Mary Rose' by the former Prime Minister, Edward Heath, at the 1983 Ideal Homes Exhibition

Margaret Rule was the archaeological director who led the team that raised the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's flagship, from its resting place in the Solent in front of a worldwide television audience of more 60 million, 437 years after it sank while engaging the French Navy. Resolute and full of drive and determination, Rule was fundamental to the success of the project, and oversaw the world's largest maritime excavation, one which set the benchmark for future projects.

Rule became the face of and driving force for the Mary Rose Trust in the early stages of the project. She secured the funding for the excavation and the construction of the £27m Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth's historic dockyard which houses the ship's hull and more than 19,000 recovered artefacts.

"This is a duty to the men of the Mary Rose," Rule declared at the opening of the new museum in 2013. It is their monument." Rear-Admiral John Lippiett added, "The Mary Rose is very much her legacy to the nation."

Born in High Wycombe in 1928, Margaret Helen Martin was the only child of Ernest, a sales manager, and his wife, Mabel. Soon after, the family moved to London, where Margaret lived through the Blitz.

After leaving school she read chemistry at University College London, but her studies were cut short when the government introduced a scheme to free places for returning servicemen, who were considered a higher priority. Unperturbed, she went to night school, which soon led to her working for Beechams pharmaceutical company on a team developing toothpaste. There she met Arthur Rule, a microbiologist. The couple married in 1949 and later settled in a watermill in Sussex. With a lifelong penchant for archaeology, Margaret gained practical experience when she volunteered for excavation work on bomb sites around London before they were redeveloped.

The couple both had an interest in English history and in their free time travelled to digs and sites in Sussex and Hampshire, "to see what we could find". Having given up her career in chemistry, Margaret joined the local archaeological committee in Chichester, serving as its director from 1961-79.

During the 1960s she played a crucial role with Barry Cunliffe in excavating Fishbourne Roman Palace, one of Britain's most important archaeological sites. Her involvement began in April 1960 following a phone call from an engineer laying pipes outside Chichester, who claimed to have found some interesting tile work. Arthur visited the site and realised that the mosaic had been part of a Roman home.

After a little persuasion from Margaret, the landowner agreed to a trial dig by Cunliffe; the site revealed the floor of the nation's largest Roman palace. Money was raised by the Sussex Archaeological Society which, in 1968, built a new museum alongside a building erected over the excavations. Margaret became its curator until 1979. Millions visited – including Prince Charles, whose support was later to prove vital to the Mary Rose project.

Impressed by her work, Alexander McKee, a military historian and local amateur diver, had approached Rule a few years earlier to help search for underwater wrecks off Portsmouth. In particular he was searching for the Mary Rose. Rule realised she needed to learn to dive if she wanted to play a part in the quest.

Launched in 1511, the Mary Rose saw 34 years of service in several wars before sinking for unclear reasons in July 1545 while leading the attack on a French invasion fleet, with the loss of nearly 500 crew, including boys, just off Southsea Castle, less than two miles out from the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour in the Solent.

For three years volunteer divers scoured the seabed where sonar scans had revealed an unusual object. In 1971, following a series of storms that eroded the seabed, the wreck was exposed. At the time there was no legislation to prevent the desecration and looting of submerged sites and Rule became a key figure in the campaign for the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973); she later became a member of the government's advisory committee.

Rule and her volunteers made hundreds of dives, often in freezing, murky water with only a few feet of visibility, but with meticulous planning and great dexterity they recovered an abundance of treasures. In 1978 it was decided to excavate the whole ship.

Fortunately, Prince Charles backed the venture and dived to see the wreck. "I've seen it with my own eyes and it can be brought up," he said. His patronage was crucial in attracting funds from British business. Rule was also a member of the committee established to decide how to raise the hull, which was in a fragile state. The team grew to more than 500 volunteer divers and about 70 onshore staff, and between 1979 and 1982 more than 26,500 dives were made, divers constantly feeding location data into a computer, which resulted in a high degree of accuracy in the calculations needed finally to raise the ship.

Using untested technology, a steel frame was attached to hundreds of iron bolts passing through the timbers of the hull, which enabled wires to be attached connecting to a lifting frame. The ship was finally lifted off the seabed on 11 October 1982. It was moved on to a cushioned cradle, which was then raised by a crane on to the deck of a barge before being taken into Portsmouth.

Rule remained a research director for the Mary Rose Trust, which in 1979 superseded the 1967 Committee, until 1994. She also became involved in a number of other underwater projects, including the search by the American oceanographer Robert Ballard for the wreck of the Titanic. She chaired a committee supervising the investigation into the first HMS Victory, which sank in 1744 during a storm in the English Channel, following its rediscovery in 2008, and was involved in the excavation of a sunken Roman merchant ship in Guernsey.

Rule published several books and received some notable awards including the Mitchell Medal for Engineering (1983), and honorary doctorates from Liverpool and Portsmouth Universities.

Margaret Helen Martin, chemist and archaeologist: born High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire 27 September 1928; CBE 1983; married 1949 Arthur Rule (died 2014; one son); died 9 April 2015.

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