Archaeologist raises a family -- and the Mary Rose

It's not easy to imagine this gracious, middle-aged woman climbing into a wet suit and diving into the murky waters off Portsmouth, England. But that's what Margaret Rule did over 600 times from 1979 to 1982 as archaeologist in charge of raising the Mary Rose. The 16th-century warship had been mired in the muddy bottom of the Solent, the strip of water between the Isle of Wight and the English mainland, since the days of Henry VIII.

That project established Dr. Rule as one of the pioneers of undersea archaeology. Her modest self-appraisal, however, is that she just ``helped define the methods.'' Either way, her work has certainly helped carve a firm niche for undersea archaeology as a scientific endeavor -- and not just a quest for sunken treasure.

This intrepid scientist's path toward archaeology began in childhood. ``It's what I always wanted to do,'' she recalls. The path had some swerves, however, most notably an initial veer toward analytical chemistry. There was a feeling at the time, she says, that archaeology was a ``very dilettante situation.'' A course correction came with marriage to Arthur Rule, a young microbiologist.

``I was liberated by getting married,'' she says, laughing. Her husband's firm advice was, simply, ``Do what you want to do!'' And she did, plunging into university courses on archaeology. Before long, she was involved in digs in London. It was a time of widespread postwar redevelopment, she explains. ``In London immediately after World War II, the past stared out at you from every bomb site.''

The Rules' son, Nicolas, was born during those early years in archaeology. ``When I was excavating on land he always came with me,'' she remembers. You could always find Dr. Rule by looking for a ``playpen on the edge of the trench with a child in it.'' Occasionally, she had offers to join expeditions to other parts of the world, but chose to remain close to her family -- working ``always within motoring distance of home.''

What was it like for her son, being brought up at the side of a field archaeologist? It was a good upbringing, she thinks, since it kept him ``always with younger people'' -- the core of the crew at the digs -- who were active and full of ideas.

Nicolas, now married and pursuing a career in mathematics, was never inclined to follow his mother's calling. That's understandable, she says. ``Growing up with archaeology from the pram, it's a bit difficult to get excited about it.'' But her son has been a help with the Mary Rose project, applying his mathematical know-how to setting up the computer systems used in record ing the find. He also did some diving of his own at the site.

As for her husband, he ``comes out occasionally and has a look,'' says Dr. Rule. He's interested in her work, but hardly caught up in it.

In Boston recently to give a lecture in connection with a Mary Rose exhibit at the city's Museum of Science, Dr. Rule took a few minutes to look back on that project and on her life as an archaeologist.

The search for the Mary Rose began back in 1965; positive location of the wreck came in 1970. Dr. Rule, with more than a decade of land archaeology behind her, was eager to join the effort to find and raise the Tudor warship, spurred on by the recognition that ``archaeology couldn't stop at the shore in England.''

Years were spent in painstaking mapping and measuring of the site -- exploratory work, as she calls it. Throughout, Dr. Rule and her team were striving to apply well-established principles of land archaeology to underwater work. Some colleagues, she says, told her it would be impractical to try to plot and organize the site as one would on land, given the constant changes wrought by shifting currents.

And there were drawbacks to the watery task. At any time, ``a hundredweight of garbage'' might drift out from one of the estuaries near Portsmouth and bowl over a diver. But she and her crew persisted, conscientiously feeding bit after bit of data into a computer. The result was ``a very high degree of accuracy in measurement'' that shored the delicate calculations needed to finally raise the old ship.

During the first few years on the ``dig'' Rule did no diving. She'd long been an avid swimmer and ``messer-abouter in boats,'' but had no experience with scuba gear. Finally, she says, it struck her that not diving was ``like being on a land site and never going into a trench.''

She discussed the matter with her husband, and again his unfailing support for her work came through. He said ``go ahead and learn to dive.'' The timing was perfect. The year she started diving was the year the team first glimpsed the ancient ship. Winter storms had washed layers of silt away, and the darkened ship's timbers were sticking up through the mud like so many jagged teeth, as she describes it.

``It was magic,'' says Dr. Rule, smiling as she reconstructs those early dives. As the mud was cleared away, cubic inch by cubic inch, the craftsmanship of 400 years ago came into view -- the carefully fitted, tightly mortised oak and elm skeleton of the Mary Rose, named for King Henry's younger sister and the Tudor rose. ``You were seeing things you had only read about before.''

During the busiest part of the Mary Rose project, when the ship was being fully excavated and prepared for raising, ``I basically tried to put my head underwater at the beginning and end of each day,'' she says.

Now that the Mary Rose is free from the sea bottom and on public display in Portsmouth, the nuts and bolts of archaeology continue. The 16,000 items recovered from the wreck have to be studied, recorded, and cataloged. Already, the old ship has yielded invaluable insights into everyday life in Tudor times -- clothing, food, medicine, weaponry -- and into maritime history. The ship itself marked a transition from the relatively weak-hulled vessels of medieval centuries to the heartier craft that carried men across the Atlantic.

On the other side of that great ocean, Americans are having a chance to view some of the Mary Rose artifacts firsthand at the traveling exhibit now at Boston's Museum of Science (see related story, page 26.)

What's ahead now for Dr. Rule? There's all that cataloging and analyzing of the Mary Rose artifacts, for one thing. But she's not one to stay away from the field, or the sea, for too long. This past year, in fact, she helped raise the remains of a 1,700-year-old Roman ship from the seabed off Guernsey, in the Channel Islands -- a project she thoroughly enjoyed. ``I have to have some relaxation,'' she laughs.

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