Posted 17 May 2018
ALEX HILDRED: MARY ROSE DIVER
When she took up scuba 40 years ago, Alexandra Hildred had no idea that her life would become inextricably linked with a Tudor warship. Now the Mary Rose Trust’s Head of Research and Curator of Ordnance & Human Remains, she tells STEVE WEINMAN about the lead-up to the raising of the iconic wreck, still one of the biggest such operations ever attempted.
Posted 17 May 2018
When she took up scuba 40 years ago, Alexandra Hildred had no idea that her life would become inextricably linked with a Tudor warship. Now the Mary Rose Trust’s Head of Research and Curator of Ordnance & Human Remains, she tells STEVE WEINMAN about the lead-up to the raising of the iconic wreck, still one of the biggest such operations ever attempted.
ALEX HILDRED: MARY ROSE DIVER

ALEX HILDRED TOOK UP SCUBA only when she started studying prehistory and archaeology at Sheffield University, and joined the sub-aqua club. “The majority of my diving before the Mary Rose was in Stoney Cove,” she says – a foundation she shares with many DIVER readers.

Accustomed to digging for ancient remains on land, it was new territory when, in 1979 and now with a degree, she volunteered as a diver at the Mary Rose wreck-site in Portsmouth.

The Mary Rose Trust had been formed that February, when the decision was made to completely excavate and raise the Tudor warship wreck.

It was 13 years since amateur divers had set out to track it down. Now, instead of a small team of volunteers diving for only a third of the year, the operation called for a much bigger team and longer schedule, and was in full swing when Alex arrived.

Switching from excavating trenches that might answer specific questions to uncovering the entire site called for “a step-change in everything”, she says.

“It required a dedicated diving-support vessel, a full-time team bringing a range of skills, a shore-base and team to receive the artefacts, and larger numbers of organised volunteer-divers to achieve the bottom-time needed to complete the excavation.”

Asked if she recalls her first dive at the site, she replies: “Yes, vividly. Very dark, limited visibility and working more by touch than sight.

“This was my ‘Cook’s Tour’ of the site, led by one of the archaeological supervisors, Christopher Dobbs.

“He grabbed my hand, plunged into the silt and started mumbling something that I interpreted as ‘gun, gun’.

“Indeed it was – we were excavating the first bronze gun to be found on the site since 1840.”

 

EIGHT BOATS A DAY would carry the volunteers out to Sleipner, the diving platform moored above the site. A dive rota prepared for each session designated divers to work in particular areas on a specified tide.

An archaeological supervisor would give a pre-dive brief in which tasks such as excavation, recording or tagging were explained, and any tools required were sorted. “We did a single no-stop dive – or sometimes two, with a short surface-interval to swap cylinders – wrote up our dive-log and went ashore so that more volunteers could come out.

“After the dive we were debriefed, took anything we had recovered into the ‘finds bay’ and handed it over to the finds supervisor for numbering,” says Alex.

“It was the diver’s responsibility that his or her dive-log specifically explained where any objects were found with respect to other objects or structure, and to make sure that the finds numbers allocated on that dive were in the log.

“Little did I know then that I would be using these 30 years later to position objects in our ‘virtual hull’ in the Mary Rose Museum of 2013!”

The divers were well kitted-out by the standards of nearly 40 years ago. They would wear a thin wetsuit under a staff-issue neoprene drysuit, these often shared between two or three divers.

Fenzy ABLJs were the order of the day, and with manufacturer Spirotechnique a project sponsor the team had a number of its single-hose demand-valves (later with octopus rig) and tanks. Fins and weight-belts would be the diver’s own.

“In 1981 we began night-diving and bought 16 Headway helmets and Teknalite rechargeable torches,” says Alex. “These were revolutionary, as they gave us two hands free for working.”

In preparation for the lifting of the Mary Rose, some of the team also did a commercial training course in the winter of 1981 to allow them to use surface-supplied diving gear. This, along with a recompression chamber, was sponsored by Comex. “Voice communications and the extended bottom-time afforded by surface recompression were fundamental to complete the tasks required for the lift,” says Alex.

 

HOW MUCH EASIER would the work have been using today’s dive-gear? “Safety apart, cold was a problem, which often meant curtailing dives before time,” she says. “The range in styles, materials and sizes of diving suits today means that with a little research a suit can be tailored not only to an individual but to the nature of both the site and work undertaken.

“I'm small, and all our equipment, with the exception of made-to-measure suits, was heavy and cumbersome.

“At times archaeological work requires being stationary, and ill-fitting, heavy equipment can be painful. The size-ranges, toughness and lightness of modern BCs again add to comfort.

“Combined with correctly chosen breathing mixtures, masks easily fitted with prescription lenses and choosing the right size of cylinder or rebreather, productivity can be increased.”

While personal dive-gear might now be more fit for purpose, manual underwater excavation techniques have changed little, says Alex.

“The airlifts we had developed by 1980 are still the best I’ve used – they needed to be, because we were excavating on an industrial scale.

“It wasn’t uncommon for eight people to be airlifting simultaneously. Yet these were simple to make, maintain and operate, and neutrally buoyant.

“In 2003, to excavate and sieve the spoil left from the 1979-1982 excavation, we built a remotely operated crawling excavator fitted with cameras, acoustic positioning and both an airlift and air-lance. Used judiciously, this certainly increased productivity, in the same way that a mechanical excavator removes more modern layers on a land-site.

“The biggest advances have been in equipment for positioning, recording, photography and robotics. A site can now be excavated and recorded and displayed to the public virtually, or excavated robotically at increasing depths.”

Beneath the surface, Mary Rose operations were “superbly” well-organised by the time Alex joined the project, she says. Divers usually came for 10 days or so, corresponding to neap tides. New volunteers, or “keenies”, would be given talks on the project and on archaeological techniques, a site-tour and  one-to-one airlift tuition.

“The diving rota was well-planned and executed, with dedicated dive-safety staff overseeing all diving operations,” says Alex. “There was a fully-kitted standby on the diving platform and a safety-boat hanging on davits nearby.

“Equipment such as board with pencil, tapes and folding rules were issued in a string-bag to divers when they came on board, and these would be hung on the grid above where the diver was working.

“The board had a Permatrace site-plan on one side and a plain sheet for notes on the other."

The grid consisted of bright yellow gas-pipes divided into 3m squares, dictated by the major structural features of the ship. 

At each intersection of pipes a clearly numbered tag, raised so that it could be felt if the visibility was too bad, could be used for orientation.

“Lines from the grid connected it with sinkers, which held the downlines from the diving platform,” explains Alex.

“A huge board divided into trenches bore two-sided tags with each diver’s name. When the red side was showing, the diver was in the water.

“When an archaeological supervisor or a member of the full-time diving team went in the water, they would be asked to check that all the divers on the board were actually in their designated positions on the seabed.”

The team needed to work fast, yet without compromising good archaeological practice. “We knew that as soon as objects or timbers were uncovered, exposing them to a more oxygenated environment, they were at risk – from physical, chemical, biological and fungal attack.

“To mitigate against this, we surveyed and lifted smaller objects in a timely manner, or covered larger objects with sandbags or a membrane to protect them.”



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