Tally Sticks

On 30th May 1981 while excavating in the sediment covering what was once a busy ORLOP deck on a British Man-O-War, Royal Naval Commander John Bingeman discovered a small fragment of sail cloth folded around a flat, shaped piece of wood. After carefully bringing it to the surface and back to the dive boat, a closer inspection was carried out. It was noted the 'piece of wood' was completely covered in a thick, very sticky tar like substance. After removing the tar, we found on the piece of wood some writing:-

FLYING JIB 26 x 26 No. 6
The sticky substance proved to be Stockholm tar of the type used to preserve the standing rigging on an old sailing ship. Indeed there were tar barrels in the vicinity, which must have broken open when the ship struck in 1758 spilling their contents over many objects. Norman Bradburn (Brad) wanted to photograph this find straight away using his Polaroid camera. However, John Bingeman decided not to take a photograph at this stage and instead put the tally straight into freshwater water to stop it drying out. This was standard archaeological practice on artefacts recovered from the sea bed and the tally was placed in distilled water and kept in a dark place. After a couple of hours, Arthur Mack could not resist another look at the wording, but when he took the tally from the water the writing was disappearing (see image below). It appeared that the tar had kept the writing intact for a couple of centuries at the bottom of the ocean but now, having been disturbed and cleaned, the ink was literally fading away. Horror of horrors - what to do next! Well the diving was stopped and back on shore, another member of the team Dr. David Houghton, had the tally stick photographed using infra red technology which to our delight was just able to 'bring out' the original writing in photographic form. See image below left - click on image to enlarge..
This was proof positive that we had found the wreck of the Invincible. The seemingly uninteresting object was in fact a 'tally stick' which had been tied to a spare JIB SAIL measuring 26ft x 26ft before being loaded onto Invincible way back in 1757.
Future years of excavation uncovered many such Tally Sticks. Only three of these had signs of faded illegible writing whereas all others were completely unmarked. There appeared to be 3 main types of method used to tie the cord or string to the tally stick: -
1. Two notches opposite each other at one end
2. One hole drilled through one end
3. Rather strangely, some had a hole at each end with the remains of an iron nail through! These were obviously nailed, rather more permanently, to the object they were intended to identify.
Click on picture to enlarge
Many of the tally sticks were made from pieces of pine while only a few were oak. The majority however, were hazel, which had been split down the centre to provide one smooth surface to write on. Some of these hazel ones actually had the original bark still attached. Tally sticks found on Invincible were the equivalent to modern day white tie on 'Tags' that you see every day in shop windows attached to objects showing prices and descriptions.

Modern Techniques unravel some of the writing.

Mr Brent Piniuta, a friend of mine living in Canada, embarked on a project to recover the extremely faded writing on one of the three tally sticks that still had the remains of letters on them indicating writing from 1758. Brent became fascinated with the tally's and so contacted Dr Goltz at the University of Winnipeg who had experience in this type of work but had never worked on shipwreck material before. Together they used various modern techniques to unravel the mystery of the illegible writing. The project proved a success and Brent wrote everything into a wonderful dialogue with images. Click on the small image to read the book.

Brent Piniuta book

25 years drying out
Writing recovered by Brent Piniuta & Dr Goltz