Wednesday, August 4, 2010

HMS Investigator's Copper Sheathing

The most significant aspect of the recently discovered remains of HMS Investigator is not where the ship was located, nor is it the graves found onshore nearby. Rather, it's the copper sheathing of her hull, so brilliantly visible in the most recently released video, a frame of which I've placed here for reference. Thanks to the low oxygen content of the frigid waters of Mercy Bay, the copper is not completely tarnished; indeed, underwater currents seem to have almost polished parts of it. The individual nails, as well as the Roman numerals used to mark off the draught of the ship during loading, are plainly visible. And, while some parts of the sheathing have been shredded or torn off entirely, in other areas it is nearly intact. This is significant for two reasons: 1) It shows that the ship was not heaved up by the ice in such a manner that the copper was readily accessible for any length of time, or the Inuit would surely have recovered more of it; and 2) We can conjecture, therefore, that less copper was recovered from this vessel than was earlier believed, which makes it more likely that copper found to the south and east near the Adelaide Peninsula came from some other source.

Could that mean the "Erebus" and "Terror"? Possibly, although evidence has recently surfaced which seems to indicate that neither vessel was given copper sheathing (see my earlier blog post here). Nevertheless, many of the ship's boats would have had it, and copper in other forms could have been recovered from the wrecks. Since the theory that the Investigator herself drifted to the area where Franklin's ships were abandoned is now disproved, the copper found there takes on potentially new significance. Of course, the copper could have been acquired by trade, but some bits of it, recovered by Hall, still bore the Royal Navy's "broad arrow" mark. It seems unlikely that this copper would have been traded such a distance without being cut up or reworked. I'm in the process of trying to get some images of Hall's copper; the Smithsonian has recently begun photographing artifacts from his collection, such as this lovely copper arrowhead. If any of it bears additional markings, it may well be possible to trace it further, and now that we can discount the Investigator as its source, it may be much more significant.


  1. Fascinating stuff!

    I'm not able to identify Roman numerals in the photo. Where are they?

  2. You have to watch the full video; the archaeologists comment on them when they appear.

  3. I see this in the latest Twitter feed from Parks Canada, where they are answering questions submitted last week:

    HC: Interesting find @ McClure’s was copper stamped w/#s-identical to 1 found at Head Hill & shows routes Copper Inuit used to salvage metal.

    Since Head Hill is not that far from Mercy Bay, this suggests to me that this site may have been a place where Inuit cut up and possibly re-worked some of the salvaged copper.