Friday, May 13, 2016

Armchair Explorers

Image via Wikimedia Commons
In my upcoming book Finding Franklin, I put it this way: "There’s every possibility that the next vital discovery relating to the fate of Franklin’s men will be made by a lone searcher equipped only with a laptop, in the comfort of his or her own study at home." It's an age of information, and in almost every sense -- maps, satellite images, digitized books and manuscripts, photo archives -- there's a greater wealth of material available to the 'armchair explorer' today than at any previous time in history. The Franklin relics at the National Maritime Museum, the narratives of the Franklin search expeditions, and digital maps showing traditional Inuit place names, all are now at anyone's fingertips who wants them. Most intriguingly, since we now know that HMS "Erebus" lies in water shallow enough that it can be seen from the surface, the idea of using satellite imagery to help find "Terror," or perhaps even smaller Franklin sites on land, seems far less improbable than it once did. There's a good deal of satellite imagery out there publicly (though the best resolution isn't free), and even Google Earth, despite its limited definition in the North, offers a way to put various finds together into a custom-made mapping system.

But although one's armchair is a fine and private place, it's not without its perils, as the cautionary tale of a Canadian teenager who claimed to have discovered a lost Mayan city reveals. The searcher, fifteen-year-old William Gadoury of Québec, had been using star constellations to find correspondences with the placement of cities, and according to press reports, found one star without a known city that matched. With some help from the Canadian Space Agency, he obtained some fairly detailed telemetry of the site, and found a promising square shape that he believed was an ancient city covered with undergrowth. Alas, according to the experts who have since weighed in, it's more likely to be a fallow field, or perhaps a marijuana plantation, though there's still some talk of taking a team to visit the site just to see if it holds any surprises.

This apparently 'false positive' shows the limits of such technology. What's really needed, in addition to visual telemetry, is a system such as LIDAR which is capable of penetrating surface cover and creating detailed imagery of physical terrain. Such a system was used by archaeologist Sarah H. Parcak this year to search for possible Viking settlements in maritime Canada, leading to a much-vaunted claim of having found several. Work on the ground, though, has yet to yield unambiguous results, and the radiocarbon dates from the sites explored gives a range from 800 to 1300 A.D., which doesn't necessarily confirm -- although neither does it exclude -- the finds being Viking-related. The site supposedly had evidence of 'turf walls,' along with bits of "bog iron" that suggested the possibility of smelting activity, but no items of definitive human manufacture.

Which brings up one of the limits of the armchair/satellite method -- it can indeed locate potentially promising spots, but can't definitively identify anything without work on the ground, which still requires the expense and time of proper archaeological investigation. Still, with very large data sets such as LANDSAT now freely available, it's certainly a valuable way to sort out the promising from the unpromising, a particularly worthwhile endeavor in the Arctic, where the shortness of the search season makes every day count.

And it's not only with on-site archaeological work where armchair searchers can make significant contributions. New images of Franklin's officers, new interpretations of surviving documents, and new understandings of the equipment supplied to Franklin, have all been discovered and developed by dedicated amateurs. What's more, since this work is undertaken in a collective spirit and regularly shared -- via sites such as the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group -- it has enabled multiple minds to focus on a single question, often yielding fresh interpretations that would be much harder, if not impossible, for any lone individual to discern. And this is the other way in which such groups can make a difference: even once something is discovered, its significance still takes time to understand, a process that can be greatly accelerated when people with many different areas of interest and expertise are part of the crowd.


  1. I keep taking the "puzzle pieces" of this mystery and re-arranging them and wondering if this time they will all fit into place. Sadly this only brings about further questions, seldom does it provide answers!
    When I watched that documentary on the Viking "discovery" in Newfoundland my first thoughts were doing a similar scan on King William Island. And I had just heard this week about the Mayan city and wondered about the possibilities of that too....until you just posted the follow up which I hadn't heard about. Oh well.
    My biggest problem is when reading material, either book form or on line is that lots of "bits" of info. stay in the mind, but where I read it gets lost. Somewhere I read about a piece of paper found in a cairn which had the lines "until called for" as the only legible lines. Where did I read that? Where is the paper now? Could some high tech scanning machine find more ink traces or impressions from a pen nib???
    One my biggest questions has been when they left the ships and left the Victory Point message, why did they not bother to provide more details? Obviously it was important enough to Crozier and Fitzjames to record "something", but why not "everything"? If you have the ink right there why not provide more details? If you traveled toward the Fish River, how many notes/messages were left? How many cairns were built only to be found torn down later? How far along were you down the coast when a return to the ships was made? If you left a message about leaving the ships, surely you would have left one about returning to them?
    What would be great would be a central Franklin website where questions could be posed for discussion.
    I heard Parks Canada put cameras on sticks down into the Erebus and took pictures...but have never seen or heard of what images came back. A central location for such info would be great.
    One of the things about this site is the great information available and it always gets the mind interpreting that info.

  2. Don, many thanks for your comment! All these things do make one's head spin, even as they suggest that perhaps new technologies hold some promise.

    The note that read "until called" was found at Beechey Island, along with a second scrap of paper that read "MacDonald." Hard to say what either meant, though in all likelihood they were part of some sort of messages between the ships, which at that time were not in the peril they later faced.

    The images from the sticks were video -- some of these were shared at the recent "Google Hangout" Parks hosted, but there are excerpts in some of the CBC coverage of that event. If you can't find them, let me know and I'll send or post a link. All best, R U S S E L L

  3. Thanks Russell I will look for those videos. That note was from Beechey? Wow, my memory was worse than I thought!
    Hopefully the politics behind all this will not delay a return to the ship for more diving. Last fall after seeing what was done at the site, I hoped for more April "under the ice" diving. Now I'm holding out for late summer!