Q&A with Chris Dobbs

Mary Rose Trust to conduct first major dive to wreck site in seven years
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
Next week, the Mary Rose Trust will conduct its first major dive to the wreck site of the historic ship in seven years. Chris Dobbs, the head of interpretation at the recently-opened Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, will lead the diving expedition. Dobbs is a maritime archaeologist who played a key role in raising the Tudor ship in 1982. 

What is the aim of the upcoming dive?

The dive is part of our continued monitoring of the Mary Rose wreck site. However, it is particularly important as the scientific instruments that we have on the seabed have stopped transmitting their data and we need to investigate why this has happened. 

Although a substantial part of the Mary Rose was raised in 1982, there are still timbers and further artefacts on the site. The remaining timbers were reburied beneath 100 tons of sand to preserve them, and scientific instruments were placed on the site to monitor the condition of the silts to ensure that the timbers and objects remain safely buried. 

In addition, we have been conducting experiments over many years to see how different types of material degrade over time, depending on whether they remain exposed on the seabed or become buried within it. If time allows in the present dive, further experiments will be conducted on the seabed to continue this research.

How does the dive relate to the work of the museum?

The Mary Rose Trust is committed to the conservation and display of the ship and her artefacts, and that also means the items that remain buried in the seabed. The monitoring dives on the site contribute to that work and our research into ways of protecting and preserving the underwater cultural heritage. 

The fact that there are further exciting discoveries to be made on the wreck site in the future, perhaps even by future generations with more sophisticated imaging techniques to look below the seabed, means that there is always potential for new objects and new stories to come from the wreck site itself. This keeps alive the opportunities for new displays and public interest throughout the 21st century. 

What are the key challenges of undertaking a dive to a heritage site?

There are challenges involved with undertaking any dive, including the need to cope with environmental factors such as the cold, depth, tides, poor underwater visibility and weather. 

On top of this, diving on a heritage site has additional administrative challenges in terms of the applications that have to be made to diverse bodies. These include English Heritage for permission to dive on a Protected Historic Wreck, the Receiver of Wreck and the Coastguard Agency. Heritage issues need to be considered and resolved, such as whether to raise items for conservation ashore or to leave them for preservation in situ. 

Is nautical heritage at risk in the current climate of funding cuts?

I think heritage is often a soft target when it comes to funding cuts in times of recession or mini-recession and nautical heritage is the same as other forms. However the difference for the Mary Rose is that as we have never been funded by the taxpayer we have not generally been so affected by government cuts.  

We have always had to be careful with our funds so there is less risk to us each time that the government has funding cuts. What is happening now though is that taxpayer-funded museums and bodies are increasingly applying to the same trusts and foundations that independent museums have relied on in the past, hence there are fewer grants to be shared among more institutions.

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