I love a good 3D scan of historical and archeological materials. Be it the Apollo 11 command module, Revolutionary War-era gunboat, Anglo-Saxon stones, Pictish stones, Chinese oracle bones, a king’s grave, or a centenarian ham and peanut, I have spent untold hours turning, zooming and flipping 3D models. So when I say that the recently uploaded 3D scans of one skull and nine artifacts from the Tudor warship the Mary Rose are the best I’ve ever seen, that’s saying something.
It’s been a banner year for the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s navy which sank off the coast of Portsmouth on July 19th, 1545, and whose intact hull still containing the remains of the crew and 19,000 artifacts was raised from the Solent in 1982. This summer, after more than three decades of constant conservation, the stabilized ship was displayed to the public in all its glory in an extensively renovated exhibition hall of the Mary Rose Museum. The museum opened in 2013, but because the ship was still being renovated, it was partially obscured by an intricate network of pipes, sprayers, sheets of glass and scaffolding. Now it can be viewed from three balconies and wall to ceiling windows that give visitors the chance to observe the hull from multiple angles.
The new Mary Rose exhibition humanizes the vast archaeological treasure of the ship by featuring the stories of members of the crew whose remains and/or belongings were discovered on the ship. While their names are unknown, their roles could be deduced by the locations in which they were found (the cook in the galley, the Master Gunner near a gun on the deck), from osteological analysis (the longbow archers suffered from a shoulder blade condition still found in archers today), or from their stuff (the purser had a chest full of coins, the carpenter had his tools).
Yesterday the Mary Rose Museum launched a new website, Virtual Tudors, which focuses on one of those featured crewmen, the carpenter, and the artifacts found with him. He was in his mid-to-late 30s when he went down with the Mary Rose. He was a strong, well-muscled man 5’7″ tall who suffered from arthritis in his spine, ribs and left collar bone. He also had terrible teeth with extensive plaque build up and an abscess in his upper jaw so severe and painful that he could only have been able to chew on the right side of his mouth. Nearby were found a leather shoe (one of nearly 300 shoes found on board), an oak grooving plane (one of 22 found), a poplar whetstone holder and more.
The website is a collaboration of the Mary Rose Trust, Swansea University and Oxford University. For the general public, the skull of the carpenter, the shoe, plane, whetstone holder, plus two knife handles, two carved panels, a wooden spoon, a wooden mirror, and a section of the ship’s rigging have been 3D scanned and uploaded to the site. For the skull alone, 120 high resolution pictures were taken with a 39-megapixel camera. They were then stitched together to create a 15-megapixel 3D model. The level of detail is unbelievable. I must have stared at the rope from the rigging for a solid 30 minutes at the most extreme zoom, and I’ve barely started.
The digitization team is hoping that this project will have research advantages as well. Besides the publically viewable models, another 9 skulls have been scanned exclusively for examination by osteologists all over the world.
Each participant will be given a questionnaire to see what their assessment is of the skulls, which the UK team will then compare.
If the results are good, Dr Johnston said, they might help tackle scepticism from some in the field who insist that physically interacting with specimens is essential.
“Do you really need to hold the skull, or can you tell a lot from the digital one? There’s the potential to speed up science dramatically – but this needs to happen first.”
Because the pool of expertise can be much wider once resources like these are online, there is also the possibility that a new discovery will emerge.
“It might be that somebody in, I don’t know, Arizona, has a particular speciality and they say, ‘Do you realise that this person here has such-and-such a condition?’ It’d be very nice if that happened,” said Swansea biomechanist Nick Owen, who has previously studied the skeletons of archers from the Mary Rose.