Pigment Barrels

On June 22nd 1980, diver John Broomhead recovered a small barrel from within the wreck of the Invincible.  Measuring just 235 mm long with a diameter of 50 mm it posed an intriguing question as to what its original use might have been.  The barrel was taken back to the conservation laboratory where it was carefully dismantled and all of the component parts, including the contents, were catalogued and stored in readiness for treatment and analysis.


The contents were obviously the key to the mystery and were two fold.  Firstly, there was sand, which at first we thought to be ingress from the seabed, and secondly there appeared to be solidified lumps of some sort of black substance.  Very strange!  The barrel itself consisted of 5 pine staves, which were neatly held together with what we thought to be 'wicker' bands.  It was later suggested these small delicate bands MIGHT be split hazel.  Inset in each end was a pine ‘head’ to retain the contents - see far right.  The method of construction of the barrel indicated that a skilled cooper had made it for a very specific purpose.


While all of the separate and different materials were being treated and stabilised, a small sample each of the sand and the black material was sent to the Portsmouth Polytechnic laboratory for analysis. The results showed that the sand was NOT from the seabed as we first thought, and so must have been put there deliberately in the first place. The black substance was 97% carbon with iron and a small trace of Gallic acid. This proved to be the base constituent of ink which must originally must have been stored and carried in a solid state!

Pigment barrel - Excavation number - 80/0118

Further research showed the sand to be of the type used in a ‘shaker’ as an ink-blotting agent in the 18th century. It was known as 'Pounce'. Pounce is a fine powder that was sprinkled over wet ink to hasten drying prior to the invention of blotting paper. This powder was prepared from various substances including finely ground sand.

Remember that the Captain would have had several clerks (servants) who had to write many letters for him.  Some of those letters required many copies and as there was no such thing as carbon paper each had to be hand written separately.  A constant supply of ink and blotting agent was therefore essential. 
This small barrel - in reality was an 18th century ‘writing kit’.


Only 27 were recovered from the wreck and many of those had lost their stave retaining hoops during their 220 year stay at the bottom of the sea.  The finest examples are now housed in the Invincible National archive in Chatham Historic Dockyard and a few have been sold to private collectors. The one shown below forms part of my own modest collection and takes pride of place in my office. It has 2 of the original 3 retaining hoops still intact.  I replaced the missing hoop using material as close as possible to the original and using the same fixing technique.  Both heads are in place and all of the material is in superb condition.
I felt that the unique nature of this artefact warranted a very special presentation case in which it should be displayed. I therefore commissioned a very skilled and dedicated cabinetmaker and friend of mine, John Burchett, to produce such a case, made from original Invincible Oak ships timbers.  The heavy chunky base measures 330 x 155 mm with an overall height of 130 mm.  The glass is bevel edged and there is a ‘hall marked’ solid silver, hand engraved plaque stating origin.  Underneath is a cavity, which holds the authentication papers signed by me. The barrel was recovered on 19th July 1981.  Excavation number INV-81/0145