Skulls, longbows, arrows ... and nitcombs! Science sheds light on life aboard Tudor warship

Tudor skulls, bones, longbows, arrows and nitcombs were among the array of artefacts examined by Bishopston Comprehensive School pupils as Swansea University academics showed how 21st century technology is shedding new light about life aboard the 16th century warship The Mary Rose.

Nick Owen and Dr Sarah Forbes-Robinson from the Colleges of Engineering and Science visited the Year 8 pupils at the school to reveal how science and technology has helped them to discover more about the lives of the people on board Henry VIII’s warship which was sunk in 1545.

Mr Owen, a Sport and Exercise Biochemist who has been working with The Mary Rose Trust, showed pupils his work on samples of skeletons that were raised with the ship from the Solent in 1982. 

Mr Owen’s research has focussed on the bones believed to be those of an elite company of professional archers who were known to have been on board the ship when it went down. Many of the skeletons show evidence of repetitive stress injuries of the shoulder and lower spine which are thought to be as a result of the shooting heavy longbows regularly.

Mr Owen said: “Archers had specialist techniques for making and using very powerful longbows. Some bows required a lifetime of training and immense strength as the archers had to pull weights up to 200lbs (about 90kg).”

Mr Owen has carried out biomechanical analysis on the skeletons of the archers and identified the effect of a life of using very powerful longbows on the musculoskeletal system, making some bones almost 50% bigger on one side of the body compared with the other.

Dr Forbes Robertson, a Biologist who specialises in DNA and genetics showed the pupils more about her research analysing tiny samples of DNA found in the skeletons.

She said: “The children looked at what DNA is, and how it has the potential to give us a great deal of detailed information from minute samples and can reveal more about the crew on board, such as their skin tone, hair and eye colour.”

When the findings from the DNA research are finalised they will be sent to forensic artist Oscar Nilsson in Sweden who is working with 3-D virtual images and 3D printed images of the skulls created by the university to make accurate reconstructions of the skulls.

Mr Owen said: “We hope that our findings will not only inspire a new generation of would be scientists here in Bishopston Comprehensive School but also re-create a slice of life from The Mary Rose nearly 500 years after she was sunk.”