When the Tudor warship the Mary Rose sank off the south coast of England in 1545, it may have taken an international crew with it. An analysis of the remains of eight mariners from the vessel suggests that some may have come from as far away as North Africa.
The Mary Rose served King Henry VIII for 34 years, before sinking during the Battle of the Solent against France. The ship, including the remains of its drowned crew, was raised from the seafloor in 1982 near the Isle of Wight in one of the most complex salvage projects in history.
Jessica Scorrer at Cardiff University, UK, and her colleagues have examined the ancestral origins and diets of eight of the ship’s crew members. Previous analysis of these remains predicted their professions according to the belongings they were found with. They were identified as a cook, royal archer, archer, carpenter, officer, gentleman, purser and young mariner.
The researchers took around 20 milligrams of enamel from the crew’s teeth and analysed the chemical isotopes it contained.
“All the isotope elements in your food and drink get deposited in your bones and your teeth during early childhood,” says Scorrer. What’s more, the balance of isotopes in food and drink can vary from region to region, so by analysing the unique chemical fingerprint of isotopes in a given tooth sample, the researchers could infer the region in which an individual had spent their childhood.
Their analysis suggests that three of the crew may have originated from warmer, more southerly climates than those seen in Britain – perhaps somewhere on the southern European coast, Iberia or North Africa. The enamel of the remaining five crew members had isotope values consistent with a childhood most likely spent in western Britain.
However, one of the five brought up in western Britain had cranial characteristics typical of someone with African ancestry.
“This is the first direct evidence of a Black mariner in Henry VIII’s navy,” says Scorrer. Such a discovery would match historical texts, which suggest Black mariners did work in Tudor Britain. “There were extensive trade networks across Europe and much further afield at that time,” says Kate Britton at the University of Aberdeen, UK, who wasn’t involved in the research.
When the ship was recovered, the remains of at least 179 men were found. Although this research provides insight into eight of these individuals, there is still more to discover, says Scorrer.
Journal reference: Royal Society Open Science, DOI: 10.1098/rsos.202106
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