Ere­bus ready to re­veal se­crets


National Post (Latest Edition) - - NEWS - Bo We B Ber

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.



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.

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