A week or two ago the Archaeological Leather Group visited the Mary Rose in Portsmouth. The Mary Rose is a Tudor ship, built in 1510 and in service for 34 years. It sank in 1545 in the Solent, waters off Portsmouth in southern England. It was discovered in 1971 and in an amazing technological feat it was raised in 1982 and now makes a totally unbelievable display in a newly built Museum within the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
When organic objects like wood or leather have been in water that length of time they cannot just be dried out and put on display, as they will disintegrate, so dewatering is a long and complex exercise. Pioneering work was done with the timbers using polyethylene glycol (PEG) [H- (O-CH2-CH2)n-OH] and this was sprayed on the ship for about 20 years followed by about 5 years of drying which will end late 2015. So at some stage in 2016 we will be able to see the remains of the hull in its full glory.
The war-ship was top heavy and tipped over, they think because water rushed into open gun doors in the lower deck gun doors when it turned, and it settled on its side. Half the ship was in the silt and mud on the seabed and the remainder, that was exposed, has been lost. The amazing exhibit thus shows us a perfect cross section of a top rated Tudor warship.
What is wonderful about the Museum is the number of artifacts found at the same time, and amongst many wonderful leather finds. The leather was not preserved by replacing the water with PEG but instead used a Bavon material instead from Hodgsons in Beverley, Yorkshire. If we have any tanners reading this who know the details of which Bavon material and how it worked it would be good to know. It certainly seems to have worked; although now it is no longer available, waterlogged leather is usually treated with PEG.
All the leather items that remain are vegetable tanned, as that was the primary tanning method used at the time. If there were small amounts of alum or oil tanned leather aboard, and it is unlikely that there would have been any significant amount, none have survived.
There are huge numbers of shoes in the collection and an even larger number of wristbands used by archers to protect their wrist from the bowstring when it was released. One amazing sight is the number of little round pieces of leather full of holes. These foxed the conservators for a while until one was found complete with broken arrows and the realized they were used to separate the arrows in the quiver so the flights would not damage and they could be removed quickly in battle.
While we have many historic artifacts from the rich and famous the great thing about the Mary Rose is that there are objects from a wide variety of people in society and we can see the importance of leather in bookbinding, drinking vessels, clothing, bags, carrying liquids and gunpowder (metal would create sparks), footwear and a myriad of aspects of working and military life.
For designers we have a cornucopia of creative ideas for design and the use of leather. It all goes to show that vegetable tanned leather has the wonder of longevity and has for centuries been a quite exceptional material for the expert artisan to use.
The Archaeological Leather Group is a UK based organisation with over 60 members from 11 countries http://www.archleathgrp.org.uk