What in heaven's name, you may well ask, is NgLj-2? Despite its technical sounding name, it is in fact one of the most significant sites where remains of Sir John Franklin's expedition have been found, and one of the best-studied. Indeed, it marks the last significant full-scale archaeological study done on any Franklin site; the study was conducted in 1992-3, and its results reported in 1994 by Margaret Bertulli, then a senior archaeologist with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife NWT.
NgLj-2 is often confused with McClintock's "boat place," where he discovered one of the whaleboats belonging to "Erebus" and "Terror." Yet although NgLj2 is indeed on Erebus Bay, somewhat less than a kilometre away from the place identified by McClintock, it's a very distinct location. It's likely that the area, which is very low-lying, was covered by coastal ice or snow when McClintock passed near. It was discovered later by In-nook-pa-zhe-jook, the same Inuk who had first told Dr. Rae the story of the last Franklin survivors. At the time he met Rae, he had not been to the area, but like many other Inuit he was anxious, once he knew of it, to locate some of the resources -- wood, metal, and useful implements -- which might have been left behind. Describing the site, he said he saw "one skeleton with clothes on," three skulls, and "a heap of skeleton bones," many of which had been broken open, he assumed, to extract the marrow. He also found several "long boots," in the inside of some of which he found "cooked human flesh."
It was a grisly find, but absent any indications of a cairn, written records, or large items, it did not attract further interest at the time. This was to its benefit as, without scavenging, the human remains and other artifacts on the site had remained largely undisturbed for nearly a century and a half, making it an ideal place for an archaeological dig. The 1992 party, which included Margaret Bertulli, Anne Keenleyside, and Barry Ranford, began with a photographic survey. From this, they mapped off an area of about 300 square metres where the concentration of relics was the highest. Then began the slow, painstaking process of marking, photographing, and cataloging each and every item, however small.
The human remains found there are the source for two studies which are well-known, and for both of which Anne Keenleyside was an author. One established the cut-marks as evidence "consistent with defleshing," and the other discovered very high -- although also very varied -- levels of lead in the bone itself. More than 400 individual bones were recovered, representing at least eight and possibly as many as eleven individuals. The skulls were clearly caucasoid in structure, but puzzlingly, the jaw on one individual appeared to be someone only 12-15 years old, based on the calcification of the third molars. Although Barry Ranford searched not only through the Muster Books for the ships but even tracked down baptismal records, he found that at least three of the four "boys" on the expedition were eighteen or older; by 1848 they would have been twenty-one. It's possible that the last "boy" was younger, although unlikely that he would have been as young as 12; the mystery has yet to be satisfactorily resolved. After study, the human remains were reburied at the site in 1994.
Along with the bones, though, were hundreds of other small items that testified to the presence of Franklin's men. Among them was a lens fragment of purple glass and several small fragments of wire gauze, suggesting improvised snow-goggles similar to those recovered at other Franklin sites; a cylinder thought to be a pen shaft, a broken clay pipe bowl, a comb fragment with 11 spines, three metal grommets, a buckle possibly from a sledge-hauling strap, three weathered lumps of wax, twelve copper rivets, shoe-heels fixed with copper tacks, 54 fragments of leather, two pieces of thin copper sheeting, a tin can fragment, and numerous fragments of cloth. Many of these fragments were of blue serge, the typical stuff of naval uniforms; there were also bits of flax, blanket-cloth, and cotton. Among the more numerous items were buttons, including four of black bone, which help date the site as buttons from only a decade or so after Franklin sailed tended to be made with vegetable ivory rather than bone; similarly, several "Dorset" or thread buttons, which declined in use after 1841, were found.
The larger significance of this site is, of course, a matter of some debate. That cannibalism took place here seems certain, but at what point in the final months of the expedition this happened is difficult to determine. The site, although low-lying, is in fact a sort of very low island; might it have been the place on shore pointed out by the officer in the account of the "Black Men"? Was this a party returning to the ships? A sick camp for those unable to continue the journey south? Intriguingly, Rae's first report to the Admiralty passed along Inuit testimony that "fresh bones and feathers of geese" had been found near the site by Inuit; faunal remains from NgLj-2 include bones of ringed seal, Arctic fox, golden plover, and "perhaps a goose." If the seal bones are from the Franklin era, it suggests the men must have become more adept at hunting local species than has hitherto been assumed, or acquired the seal in trade with the Inuit.
The complexity of the site, and the ambiguity of much of its evidence, suggests that other Franklin sites, after this length of time, are not likely to add enormously to our store of knowledge, unless by chance objects associated with specific individuals, or some sort of written material, are found. Nevertheless, if complex, it is also rich, giving us in the form of hundreds of small reminders, mute testimony to the presence of men who travelled, and who died, in this icy wilderness.
NOTE: IF you would like to have a look at the area, point your Google Earth or other geo browser to 69º08'30" N., 99º01'17" W.