Long-term NAS member, Ali Bessell, re-finds her way back to NAS activities after a long absence, and learns all about rope recording. Find out what she discovered here...

Tutor Damien Sanders talks about preserving rope from the Invincible wreck

I’ve always had a love of rope. Probably as I have a great memory of sailing out of Whitstable on a beam trawler at four in the morning on a clear night, lying on a huge coil of rope about 5ft across and 2ft high. It was the most comfortable place on the boat and I stayed there to watch the sun come up. Having always rescued old bits of rope that are being thrown away, I have piles of them in the garden - which I realise is starting to look like an obsession! But a new tangent in my life recently began when I saw a whole course introducing me to rope recording!

The NAS’s Post-Medieval Rope and Cordage course was held in Poole on the south coast of the UK. We all convened at the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust’s conservation facility, in which there were coils of rope, racks of rope, black tar covered rope, rope in the process of being made, and various types of knotted rope scattered on tables. These were all artefacts raised from the wreck of the HMS Invincible.

Large coil of tarred rope recovered from the Invincible wreck 

Damien Sanders was the first tutor for the day. Damien has been knee deep in the world of maritime history and rope for more than 30 years. He gave a fascinating talk about the history of rope and rigging, which made me painfully aware that I knew next to nothing about rope. He also gave the class an introduction to the material used for making rope, where the material came from and how it was prepared. My knowledge of rope increased exponentially! It turns out that a very simple every day item, such as rope, has a very long and convoluted past. I spent a lot of the day making a private homework list entitled ‘things about rope that I am going to research in the future!’. I am someone who benefits greatly from hands on experience, so I appreciated the chance to partake in creating a length of rope from scratch. It helped me get some of the terminology that was used during the day to take a firmer place in my overloaded brain.

Examples of different types of rope

The second half of the day was led by Dan Pascoe, the licensee of HMS Invincible, sunk off Portsmouth in 1744. The rope we investigated during the afternoon, came from that wreck. The opportunity to observe rope from an ongoing archaeological investigation, the difficulties involved with its retrieval, preservation and storage, gave a very useful context to the learning experience. We cut sections from a sacrificial bit of 250-year-old rope (gulp…), and investigated the way it was made. We stripped back the layers to get to the initial ‘yarn’ and measured all intervening stages to get an overall idea about the original construction. For me, this raised a big question. How could something that had been on the seabed for so long; being compressed, scoured and battered by the elements still retain enough original detail to allow its history to be extrapolated? However, under the skilful eyes of our rope-experts in residence, the possible roots of its construction were explained.

Tutor Damien Sanders talks about the different kinds of rope raised from the Invincible

But the day ran away with us, and we only managed to scratch the surface of this fascinating topic. We all planned to continue our rope investigation on the optional day two of the course. The overall day was varied and fast moving with everything appearing to lead to more avenues of future investigation. We examined more examples of rope and practised our newly-acquired rope recording skills from the previous day. I came to the decision that this was definitely something that I would be interested in doing again. There is now a Hemp Festival in France I have my eye on…!

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