Fig 1. Phil Short and Gemma Smith recording rope. (Photo: Nick Reed)

Long-time NAS member Nick Reed has a new-found knowledge of post-medieval rope and cordage after attending a recent NAS course on the subject: He’s now part of the volunteer team that will help the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST) and Bournemouth University with their post-excavation documentation of the miles of rope recently raised from HMS Invincible. Here, Nick shows us the ropes:

A large industrial unit close to the household recycling centre in Poole, Dorset, England, is not the most obvious venue for an NAS course. However, on entering the new MAST conservation facility, I was almost transported back to an eighteenth-century quayside. The warehouse smelt of tar and the sea, created by the artefacts raised over the last two years from HMS Invincible.

After a short briefing and orientation tour, our tutor for the weekend, Damien Sanders, introduced us to the history and principles of rope making. Damien has been involved in maritime and experimental archaeology since the 1970s and is a leading expert on ships’ ropes and cordage. We were soon twisting and counter twisting strands (sorry, yarn!) of string to demonstrate how rope is formed, and being introduced to the world of S and Z (the way rope is twisted). It soon became obvious that this was a “hands-on” course—not a series of presentations!

Fig 2. Rope-course participants learning practical skills. (Photo: MAST)

Over coffee, Damien demonstrated making rope, and during the weekend several of us took the opportunity to make a length of rope using a jig that Damien had provided. Mine rope’s already been put to good use, tying my dive cylinders in place in my car boot!

Being surrounded by all the rope from the Invincible excavation meant that all sessions were illustrated by concrete examples. It was interesting to hear how rope and cordage is often neglected in excavations, in favour of discovering the ships structure.  It’s good to see that some of the more recent excavations are taking a more holistic approach: cordage assemblages are an integral to understanding how a ship functioned.

The afternoon session was largely taken up by a rope-recording session. Here we measured diameters, circumferences, numbers of strands and yarns and angles of twist. Within minutes the course had broken up into small groups analysing and recording different ropes from the Invincible. I think what made this session so fascinating was that we were handling real material. We all felt we were involved in the post-excavation process.

Sunday started with a presentation by Dan Pascoe, licensee of the Invincible. Dan’s talk focussed on this year’s excavation: being able to see and handle the artefacts that he was talking about really brought the session to life.

Fig 3. Learning the ropes. (Photo: MAST)

We then all got back to our recording. Our findings highlighted Damien’s comments about how little was known about ships’ rope. Some of the larger ropes (cables) were fascinating in their consistency (size of hawsers, numbers of yarns per strand etc.) while the smaller ropes seemed to be much less consistent. The gun wads provoked a lot of discussion about how they were made, where and when they were made and how they were standardised. It was real archaeological investigation! 

The day finished with us looking at all the stored rope and planning how it was to be analysed. I think for most of us, what started as a weekend course may well become a volunteering opportunity.  

I think big thanks must go to Damien Sanders for giving us an absolutely fascinating weekend.  It’s opened up another aspect to our nautical archaeological experience. Thanks also have to go to Dan Pascoe, Tom Cousins and the MAST and Bournemouth University team for allowing us to get involved in the Invincible excavation follow up.

It gave everyone the chance to be involved in real archaeology and proved NAS’s motto once again; discovery is just the beginning.

Want to learn about post-medieval rope for yourself? Book online for our course on 30-31 March 2019.

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Edited by John P Cooper

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