Eight curious artefacts at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Eight curious artefacts at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

26 November 2020

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is home to some of the collection of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the Mary Rose Museum and their more curious artefacts. 

From the unique and unknown whatcha-ma-call-its to the sublime and ridiculous thingy-ma-bobs, these items paint an entirely different picture of history. 

They show the hidden stories, the solutions to everyday problems, details about people and events and strange gifts given out of courtesy and tradition.

There are even items that still have us guessing what their purpose is. These are truly curious of course, and we do have a lot of fun trying to figure them out. 

The best part is that each of these artefacts offer a completely different perspective on history, an insight into what life was like in these times and interesting details that might have otherwise been lost. 

Here are eight of the most curious things we could find that are currently on display. Some will make you cringe, others might make you think ‘yuck’ but, we think you’ll agree all of them are weird! 



Find this in the new Diving Deep: HMS Invincible 1744 exhibition

Shipworm (Toredo Navalis) are eating the wreck of HMS Invincible. They can be found in the sea all over the world and are not actually worms, they are molluscs with a long slimy body and a tiny shell.  

They use their shell a bit like we use our teeth, to grind and chew burrows deep inside the wooden decks of Invincible.  

This is an x-ray that shows the shipworm burrowing away inside the wood causing huge amounts of damage. You can see the actual damage they have caused to HMS Invincible in the Diving Deep exhibition in the National Museum of the Royal Navy. 

 Antlers image


Find this in the National Museum of the Royal Navy 

Why does the Navy have antlers? It’s because they had a zoo on Whale Island, Portsmouth. The antlers belonged to Robin, a fallow deer buck, who died in April 1938.    

We don’t know how Robin got to Portsmouth but it is possible he was a mascot or gift to a ship.   

As there wasn’t enough space to keep larger animals on board, the crew probably gave him to Whale Island naval zoo when they returned home.   

Strangely animals were frequently used as gifts as you can see in another example in the picture below, and Elk presented to HMS Kent in 1984. And, that’s not the strangest there’s been reindeer, bears and all kinds of animal gifts to the Royal Navy over the years.  

  82 nit combs mainly made of boxwood were found on the Mary Rose the most commonly found personal objects recovered copy 1024x747

Nit Combs  

Find this at the Mary Rose Museum  

Eighty two nit combs were found on the Mary Rose, making them the most commonly found personal objects recovered. Apart from one made from ivory, they were all fashioned from wood, mainly boxwood, with a single alder example.  

Thousands of these combs were imported from the continent during Tudor times, and although most of them were made in wood occasionally an elephant ivory examples survives. As well as being used to remove nits and fleas they were also used to style the hair of the Tudor sailors, although several in the collection still have nits in them.  



Find onboard HMS Victory 

HMS Victory has two ‘capstans’, these are huge hand turned machines used to lift heavy weights like stores, boats and guns, as well as rigging. This one is believed to survive from the 18th century. To combat woodboring pests that have made Victory their home, in 2009 it was heated to 58°C for several days. This killed the pests to help preserve this historic part of the ship.   

  Syringe pewter 80a1741 The Mary Rose Trust 10 1024x797

Pewter syringe   

Find this at the Mary Rose Museum  

Two metal syringes were among the artefacts recovered from the wreck.   

The larger is thought to have been used to treat constipation, whilst the smaller was a urethral syringe for the treatment of diseases such as gonorrhoea or syphilis.  

However the use of mercury for such treatment and the fact that mercury corrodes pewter rather rapidly suggests that this pewter syringe was more likely used to administer a non-corrosive fluid such as rosewater, or acidic ones such as wine or vinegar, which were used for flushing out wounds. They could also have been used for draining fluids and flushing stones from the bladder.  


Victory’s keel bomb damage  

Find this under HMS Victory  

In the Second World War, a German bomb exploded in No. 2 Dock and Victory had a large hole torn in her hull.  

German radio propaganda claimed the ship had been destroyed but Victory was hastily patched up, but the bomb Victory left a 2.5m by 4.5m hole through the hull and part of her keel blown away.  

The repair to Victory’s keel can be seen when visiting beneath the ship in the dock. To boost morale during the war years, Churchill used Victory as a symbol of Britain’s heroic past.   

 The motorbike where it was stopped

Taliban Motorbike  

Find this in HMS Galleries in The National Museum of the Royal Navy 

In 2008, Royal Marine Sergeant Noel Connolly, serving with 42 Commando in Kandahar, Afghanistan, received a warning about a possible suicide bomber. When a motorbike later stalled near his unit, he approached the rider and saw a toggle to detonate a bomb. Sergeant Connolly rugby tackled the rider and discovered that it was packed with explosives. He received the Military Cross for his bravery.  

Sergeant Connolly asked his sister not to tell his mother what he had done as he didn’t want her to worry.  

 Earscoop ornate 80a1577 The Mary Rose Trust 1024x387


Find this at the Mary Rose Museum  

This ornately carved ivory ear scoop, used to remove earwax from the ears of the owner, was found in a bone manicure set located, not in an officer’s chest as might be expected, but in the carpenter’s cabin.  

Ear scoops – many of which were made of silver, were a popular implement in the Tudor period and the find suggests that at least one of the carpenters took care of his appearance as there was also a comb, razor, shaving brush and a little mirror associated with it.  


Eight Curious Artefacts at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard 

These artefacts are just a handful of items here waiting for you to discover.  

The majority are on display across the dockyard and you’ll be able to see them all with an Ultimate Explorer ticket when you next visit us.  

The Ultimate Explorer ticket can be bought now and doesn’t activate until your first visit. It will give you access to all of the museums, attractions and exhibitions at the dockyard and can be used an unlimited amount of times across the year. Plenty of time to discover the items on this list! 

Please note the items listed were on display at the time of publishing unless otherwise stated. But, our collections and exhibitions often change and new items are brought out to display and others put in storage. There is always lots to discover at the museums so be sure to come and visit us on a regular basis.