|Circular Cairn at Erebus Bay (photo courtesy Tom Gross)|
Finding Franklin's grave, after all, would be in some ways an even more iconic discovery than that of his ships. We know that he died on 11 June, 1847, at a point when the ships were still afloat, and all the resources that would have, up until his death, been at his command would have been employed in his interment. If the graves at Beechey showed extraordinary care -- custom-made coffins with metal nameplates, and carved headboards reminiscent of an English country churchyard -- surely Franklin's grave would have been even more substantial. And that's the kind of grave that Supunger described to Charles Francis Hall: a vault, about four feet in depth and longer than a man's body, all lined with smooth, closely-fitted stones. A large wooden pole was fixed in the ground nearby, though part of it had been chewed off by a polar bear; the grave itself had been breached by some animal, with the several body parts outside, and the skull and a leg bone inside.
Some -- including the present writer -- have suggested that Irving's grave, already found by Woodman, could be the remnant of this vault, but Gross disagrees. When I reached him by phone a couple of weeks ago, he explained that the Irving grave was, and had always been, a shallow one, made of just a few rough-shaped rocks; it was not even long enough for a body to lay straight. Franklin's tomb, on the other hand, must have been as strong and substantial as possible; Supunger's description of a fortified vault, four feet in depth and as long as as wide as a man, is just what one would expect.
But finding it is another matter. Woodman's earlier Project Supunger searches worked on the assumption that the pile of clothes, stoves and kettles, and other items was the one abandoned near Crozier's Landing. Tom Gross -- having searched there -- now believes this to be mistaken; he points out that there were at least two areas of large piles of abandoned goods, inclduing one on the shores of Erebus Bay. Large cook-stoves would make more sense there -- the ships may well have been just a short distance offshore, and reachable by open water (thus the boats); Gross believes the stoves may have been used to melt ice and heat water, perhaps for drinking purposes, perhaps to enable the men to wash and prepare for their journey.
There are difficulties with this view: Supunger seems to describe the place as much further north, near the tip of the island -- but, as Gross notes, he was only about seventeen at the time, and may have mistaken the long coast of Erebus bay for the northern coastline. Gross also doubts that Supunger had ever seen something like a white man's map.
A few years back Gross heard an interesting account from an Inuk in Gjoa Haven who described how his father told him about finding a "house of stone" a ways inland from Erebus Bay, one that answers in many respects to Supunger's description. This house was made with large, smooth stones, had a stone 'doorway,' and was built into the side of a natural ridge. It's possible that, despite the many searches closer along the coast, that somewhere a ways further inland this stone house still stands.
It's a possibility Tom is willing to stake his time and money on. And so, each summer, he returns to search again. I think we should all wish him luck.