Erebus ready to reveal secrets
RESEARCH TEAM PREPARING TO EXCAVATE FRANKLIN’S FLAGSHIP
Atiny dot of fuchsia bobs livid against the deep blue Arctic sea at a GPS point known only to selected researchers and the few local hunters who guard it.
Anchored somewhere in Wilmot and Crampton Bay off Queen Maud Gulf, the buoy could not be more remote. Even the Inuit seem uncertain about what to call the islands — mere rockstrewn smudges of sand — that dot these waters. That’s about to change. The buoy marks where, 10 metres down, Sir John Franklin’s flagship Erebus rests on the bottom, heaving up and down in the undersea swells as if breathing. Its lonely moorage will soon be home to one of the largest and most complex archeological excavations Canada has ever mounted.
Now, six archeologists camp out on a beach near the site. They dive from a small inflatable boat, subject to the vagaries of wind and wave.
By this time next year, a dedicated research vessel big enough to sleep 14 will be moored here. Alongside will be a barge, loaded with everything from artifactcleaning tables to a hyperbaric chamber for divers if they get into trouble.
Vacuum dredges will suck sediment topside, where workers will search it for anything from buttons to musket balls. A hydraulic crane will lift heavy items. Multibeam sonar will scan the site.
Divers, wearing suits trailing air hoses and communication lines and warmed by hot water pumped from the surface, will spend hours combing the wreck.
“I’ ve never seen a case where shipwrecks have so much to contribute to a story,” says Marc-Andre Bernier, head of Parks Canada’s underwater archeology team.
The Franklin Expedition is one of the great legends of Arctic exploration. Erebus and its sister ship Terror — which lies to the north in King William Island’s Terror Bay — set out from England in 1845 with 129 men to search for the Northwest Passage. They never returned.
A message found in 1859 by a search vessel said both ships were trapped in ice in late 1846 and remained so for about 18 months. It added that in April 1848, 105 survivors headed out on foot. None survived.
More than 30 expeditions have since tried to find them. A few artifacts, graves and horrible tales of cannibalism is all they had to show.
In 2008, Parks Canada joined the effort.
Using a blend of Inuit oral history and systematic, hightech surveys, the Erebus was found in 2014 to excited headlines around the world. Since then, Parks Canada has been working to understand what’s down there — and what light it could shed on a story that has become part of Canadian lore.
“The degree of preservation is astonishing,” says Charles Dagneau, one of the archeologists. “Typically, we deal with shipwrecks that are collapsed, split open, covered with sediment. This is a 3D structure so well preserved that you can actually see furniture in place.”
The helm remains in position. The latrines are still in place. The cook’s galley is there, complete with stove. So is the steam engine, one of the earliest outfitted for a ship.
The Erebus sailed with a 3,000-volume library, equipment to print a ship’s newspaper and materials to stage amateur theatricals. It held a Daguerreotype camera — capturing, maybe, images from the voyage.
The wreck is expected to offer compelling insight into the lives of both officers and rank-and-file seamen.
“There is, for example, a seaman’s chest,” says Dagneau. “They would sit on it, eat on it, but they would also store their personal belongings (in it). One of them is right next to the forward ladderway. We’re going to look at excavating it and re- trieving its content.”
Ice has crushed the deck atop Franklin’s cabin, but the contents should remain.
“We’re hoping to fi nd many things here — personal artifacts that relate to individuals, but also records, documents saying what happened to the expedition after the abandonment of the vessel and why these vessels were abandoned and where they were abandoned.”
These will not be anonymous artifacts.
The names of the ship’s crew are known. Government of Nunavut archeologist Doug Stenton has already developed a DNA database of 19 of them and the divers sense their presence.
A belt plate has been linked to Daniel Bryant, sergeant of the Royal Marines.
A boot has surfaced, well made and decorated with seal fur. Traces of skin inside retain enough DNA to be identified.
“That artifact in particular was, for me, wonderful,” Dagneau says. “I felt like I was excavating the wardrobe of one of the officers on board.”
Where objects are found could also shed l i ght on interactions with Inuit. A pile of unrelated objects found together may suggest hunters were scavenging useful items before the Erebus sank.
A total of 64 artifacts, including the ship’s bell, have already been recovered. Many are now on display at the National Maritime Museum in London.
TYPICALLY, WE DEAL WITH SHIPWRECKS THAT ARE COLLAPSED, SPLIT OPEN, COVERED WITH SEDIMENT. THIS IS A 3D STRUCTURE SO WELL PRESERVED THAT YOU CAN ACTUALLY SEE FURNITURE IN PLACE. — CHARLES DAGNEAU, ARCHEOLOGIST
Islands on the coast of the Adelaide Peninsula near Gjoa Haven. By this time next year, a research vessel will be moored nearby for the excavation of Erebus.