Tally Stick project by Brent Piniuta
Front cover of Brent' s book

Captured from France in May 1747, Invincible was in every respect the finest warship of the day serving His Majesty’s Royal Navy.  She carried a lethal armament of 74 guns and had forged a reputation as the fastest ship in the fleet with fine sailing qualities.  Invincible set the contemporary standard for English warship design and technology.

Over the course of eleven year’s service the ship engaged various missions as Britain and France sparred for control of colonial North America; to secure its lucrative resources and emerging commerce.

Early in the morning of February 19th, 1758 Invincible weighted anchor at St. Helen’s Roads off the Isle of Wight, setting sail with a large war fleet bound for Fortress Louisbourg in Nova Scotia.

Fate, however, had other plans as on that day the vessel grounded in shallow water and eventually wrecked.  Once the pride of the King’s Navy, the broken ship suffered an undignified end as it languished on the Horse Tail Sandbank for months following.  By the close of 1758 the last of her remains had slipped under the waves of the Solent and Invincible sailed her last voyage into history.


Invincible was subsequently rediscovered in May 1979 by Portsmouth area fisherman Arthur Mack and diver John Broomhead.  However at that time the origin and identity of the wreck was a mystery – this initiated a decade of research and archeology to investigate the ship and it’s history.

Site Excavation and recovery yielded numerous artifacts including finished wood pieces later identified as ‘Tally’ sticks.  These were essentially tags attached to on-board equipment and stores.  A description of the item would be written by hand on the face of the Tally and then attached to the item it represented before being stowed away.

John Broomhead examines deck planking on the Invincible wreck

These unassuming relics proved to be of importance to the investigation; a ‘Tally’ recovered in 1981 conclusively identified the ship’s namesake.


Over the years other Tally sticks were recovered from the wreck.  Most appeared to have been unused pieces, however a few displayed evidence of handwriting that had suffered the scourge of time and elements – over two centuries on the seabed.


A particular set of three Tallies were known to have remnants of faint but illegible writing.  This was a small mystery itself thirty years unanswered – what had been written on them?

Two of the Tallies had been recovered in the 1983 diving season from an area of the wreck site known as ‘Trench A’ which corresponded to the Orlop Deck and Forward Hold in front section of the ship.  The Tallies are identified by Excavation Numbers; these particular two being 83/145 and 83/165 – referred by the team as Tally ‘1’ and Tally ‘2’ respectively.  The third of the trio – 84/210 Tally ‘3’ was recovered from adjacent ‘Trench D’ the following year.


In the summer of 2011 an opportunity developed out of chance to investigate the faint writing on the three Tally sticks.  Naval history enthusiast Brent Piniuta of Winnipeg, Canada had made acquaintances with John Broomhead months prior and became fascinated by the Invincible story. 

An idea was conceived to investigate the Tally writing.
The search to find someone that could lead an examination of the Tallies was deceptively easy: a referral identified a Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the University of Winnipeg who pursued interest in the ‘science of cultural objects’ and had undertaken similar research projects.  This in itself was remarkable, as to find an individual with both relevant technical expertise and subject interest could easily have taken the search far abroad.

Dr. Doug Goltz was contacted and introduced to the project.  He graciously offered his time and laboratory facilities, and plans made for an initial review.

    [Left to Right] Brent Piniuta, Shokoufeh Ahmadi [University of Manitoba graduate student], and Dr. Doug Goltz in the investigation lab at Richardson College for the Environment Science Complex - University of Winnipeg.

The Tally sticks were sent to Winnipeg and the first lab investigation took place on October 4th, 2011.  A series of imaging trials were undertaken in the hopes of identifying a method that would provide contrast between the writing and the wood.  As the day progressed images and data were collected, but there was no definitive breakthrough.

The last attempt of the day was to expose the Tallies to a specific wavelength of ultraviolet light while simultaneously filtering out ambient light.  The result was instant – the writing on Tally 1 – so faint in normal light was now opaque and bold, set in the purple glow of ultraviolet light.  It was an unforgettable experience knowing that the last time the writing had been seen by other eyes was a time and world beyond us.


Tally 1

      This true-colour image of Tally 1 is the first photograph taken after discovering the effect of UV light on the Tally writing. The blue dots are particles of airbourne dust flouresced by the UV light source.

The results obtained in the first lab session became the basis for determining refinements to imaging technique and equipment.  Lab work continued at the University of Winnipeg through January 2012.

The secrets of the Tally sticks proved to be elusive, and the investigation only led to more unanswered questions.  Despite the new found writing on Tally 1 it could not be read because of the team’s unfamiliarity with 18th century terminology and handwriting style.  The writing appeared cryptic with sets of numbers and use of shorthand unknown by modern convention.

Another unanswered question:  had the writing been made in ink or pencil?  The scientific component of the investigation focused on an identification and Dr. Goltz believed the answer could be determined with scanning electron microscope technology.  Locating the necessary equipment led to the University of Manitoba and another contact – Erwin Huebner, a Professor of Biological Sciences.  Laboratory investigation took place there in the month of January 2012.  The Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) provided examination of the Tally surfaces to a staggering magnification of 10,000.  Despite this there was no definitive evaluation although Dr. Goltz hypothesised that what writing could be seen may actually be a surface effect to the wood, with the actual media - ink or pencil – gone from the Tallies due to environmental conditions on the seabed.



The effect of ultraviolet light within ambient light conditions is illustrated in this image of Tally 1 taken by Professor Erwin Huebner at the University of Manitoba.


It had been taken for granted by the team that recovery of the handwriting would simply lead into reading text; this proved to be not so.  In fact, the reading and interpretation of words were significant challenges in the project.

Furthermore as the Tallies referred to on-board items, there was another issue in relating specific terminology of navy vessel supplies and components that would have formed part of the contents of the ship’s stores.  Many such terms commonplace back in Invincible’s day are now obsolete and obscure.

Right:  First page of handwritten transcript dated March 7th 1758 – Court Martial proceedings for members of Invincible’s crew concerning the loss of the ship
Below:  This excerpt from a mid-18th century student penmanship book proved useful in identifying letters and words observed on the Tally sticks  



This led to an assessment of the other text on the top line; it appeared to say ‘8-doz’, believed to be a reference to a quantity of 8 dozen spare Cringles.  This was followed by what looked like ‘1-100’ of significance unknown.  Since the ship’s supplies would have been assembled and packed in Portsmouth Dockyard this could be a reference to an accounting number or some other type of record.

The second line was still much a mystery even in December 2011 when subsequent lab sessions produced high resolution images of the Tallies.  The best guess was that is identified something beginning with a ‘P’ of quantity ’40 by 30 Jars’… or at least that is how it appeared.  Realisation set in that someone possessing expertise and knowledge of British naval history had to be consulted.  Mr. Andrew Baines, naval historian and curator of England’s most famous warship HMS Victory was contacted and provided the Tally images.  His response was enlightening- an interpretation that the first group of characters is ‘Portsm_o’ – period shorthand for ‘Portsmouth’, with reference to the number 40 which may have represented a particular building in Portsmouth Dockyard.  The second term ’30 Jany’ was in fact shorthand for ‘30th of January’ – presumably the date that a set of eight dozen Cringles were packed in preparation for Invincible’s impending departure on February 19th, 1758.


The bottom line is almost certainly a signature, perhaps a dockyard worker or supervisor responsible for the staging and loading of ship’s stores.  The remaining letters appear to be J Arno – which may represent ‘J Arnold’.


Dr. Doug Goltz obtained detailed images with exceptional writing/wood contrast by employing near-infrared and visible hyperspectral imaging techniques.  Composite image panels of each Tally stick were produced by taking multiple exposures with specialised camera and data acquisition equipment

Tally # 1: 365 nm light source; 105 mm lens composite
false colour (440-700nm) image - December 5, 2011
Doug Goltz and Brent Piniuta


At the University of Manitoba, Professor Erwin Huebner took the investigation to another level in using a unique Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope.  This enabled an examination of the Tallies otherwise impossible with conventional SEM equipment.  The result was surface imagery at a level of magnification well beyond what is achievable in optical microscopy.  At right, debris is entrapped within the wood cell structure of Tally 1


The poignant effect of 365nm wavelength ultrviolet light on Tally 1, relative to ambient light conditions


The Mystery Lingers...


Tally 2

The success achieved with Tally 1 carried high hopes that similar findings could be produced in the other two Tally sticks.  Hundreds of images were obtained however results could not be duplicated in either Tally.  This is likely attributable to varied conditions each Tally had been exposed to on the seabed for over two centuries.


Tally 2 as observed in both ambient light and ultraviolet light conditions

The writing surface of Tally 2 is contaminated with residue of Stockholm Tar (used as a preservative on hemp rigging lines) and other unknown materials possibly including mould.  This surface contamination covers the writing in spots and effectively acted as ‘background noise’ to the imaging equipment in the effort to disseminate between wood and writing.


Close examination of Tally 2 revealed there is at least two if not three lines of writing on it with at least as many words as found on Tally 1. The writing has faded to such an extent that even ‘best guesses’ are difficult to infer.

While no wording has been discerned the investigation did reveal several distinct letters imprinted on the Tally, including some in the lower margin which are otherwise invisible in ‘normal’ ambient light.


[Below] What appears to be a capital 'B' is found at the beginning of text on the second line of writing on Tally 2


Digital photography enabled the manipulation of image data to ‘draw’ out details otherwise obscured.  Adjustment of colour, contrast, brightness levels etc. improved clarity.  The ‘negative’ false-colour image at right enhances the first word in the top line of the writing, and another word or set of words beginning with what appears to be a capital ‘B’ in the second line, below.

Mark-ups, like the example at left, were useful in recording a Tally find or ‘guess’ as the images were examined.  This also proved useful as a digital mark-up could be emailed across the globe, providing an opportunity for others elsewhere in the world to collaborate in the project.


Tally 3


Tally 3 as observed in both ambient light and ultraviolet light conditions


Tally 3 proved to be even more of a challenge to the team, and particularly frustrating with the knowledge that writing had indeed been made on it and a photograph taken some thirty years earlier proved so.  It is still possible to see by naked eye remnants of the writing yet surprisingly Tally 3 did not respond to ultraviolet light as had Tally 1 and to a lesser extent Tally 2.  Thus not even recognition of a single letter or number was achieved in its investigation.

Perhaps another opportunity will come about in the future to re-examine the Tally sticks with the benefit of an imaging technology as yet unknown- and Invincible will give other secrets from times past.





Invincible’s Tally sticks are intriguing artifacts, much more than the simple pieces of wood they appear to be at first glance.  They were cut to specific dimensions and shape and finished with care.  On their backside the wood was left rough-hewn and it is incredible that in the present day loose, fine slivers of wood are still intact after surviving a shipwreck and more than two centuries of relentless ocean currents and tidal forces.



Special thanks and recognition are due to Doug Goltz and Erwin Huebner not only for the superb images obtained of the Tally sticks, but moreover for their participation, interest, time invested and provision of expertise and equipment to the project.

Back cover of Brent's book