Curator's Choice: Christopher Dobbs of the Mary Rose Trust chooses a Tudor shovel

Christopher Dobbs interviewed by Richard Moss | 28 September 2009
a photo of a man in blazer holding a wooden shovel

Christopher Dobbs with a prized item recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose. © Richard Moss / Culture24

Curator's Choice: In his own words... Christopher Dobbs of the Mary Rose Trust talks about a humble wooden ballast shovel, part of the Designated Mary Rose Collection, he recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose in 1981.

“We excavated 19,000 objects from the ship so it’s incredibly difficult to choose a single one. There are the really ornate objects, the bronze guns with Henry VIII’s ciphers and crowns, the gold coins, whole sets of pewter, but to me the value of the Mary Rose collection is that it has things from all levels in society, so that’s why I’ve chosen this magnificent wooden shovel.

It’s so beautifully functional - carved out of one piece of wood – beech wood – it would have been incredibly strong when it was in use. It’s got the grain running all the way up it and has been carved out with hand tools. If you look at the handle and see how that’s been carved, it would fit perfectly in the hand and be really beautifully balanced.

It’s very personal to me because I remember finding it back in November 1981 during the excavation of the Mary Rose. It’s one of many objects I found but it just happened to be the one that when I held it up under water I thought ‘wow, the last person that touched this was a Tudor sailor’. For some reason this just didn’t happen with any other object. Perhaps it’s because it’s such an individual object that gives a real connection with the people at the time.

I found it in a storage area in the orlop deck, but I think it would have been principally used for shovelling the ballast. The ballast was gravel, and that’s one of the reasons why it had a tip on the end of it to protect it from the constant use.

a photo of a wooden shovel

The wooden shovel was recovered by Christopher Dobbs from the orloop deck of the Mary Rose in 1981. © Richard Moss / Culture24

I don’t know if it’s standard for these shovels to be made out of one piece of wood, I’m sure many of them were, but hardly any of them have survived and I don’t know of any other museums that have a complete example like this that can be closely dated to the Tudor period and especially to 1545.

There’s the old story about the man who has a broom and he says ‘this broom’s 200 years old – the head’s been replaced three times and the handle’s been replaced four times’. Well this shovel really is the same object – it’s made out of one piece and it is almost 500 years old.

That’s one of the great advantages of the Mary Rose collection – the objects are all exactly dated and every single one of them is different; it’s before the age of mass production so there is this individuality to everything. When I go into the Museum I’m overwhelmed, even now, by the personal nature of the objects. To have these everyday items I think is the real value of the collection.

A couple of years ago we had a round table discussion with colleagues where we were asked to write down what our favourite object was. Everybody chose something different.

For someone it was a pepper grinder, for another it was the ends of shoelaces, someone chose a shoe that had been worn through by the owner, for another it was a bronze gun. I think this just illustrates how the Mary Rose collection appeals to different people in different ways.

Any museum experience is intensely personal to the visitor; it’s about their perception of things, but I think the fact we have this amazing range of objects is what makes the Mary Rose collection so powerful."

Find out more about the ambitious plans for the new Mary Rose Museum.

Watch Christopher Dobbs talk about the shovel and the Mary Rose collection on You Tube

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The Mary Rose Collection is a Designated collection of national and international importance.

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