Wednesday, May 13, 2009


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.


  1. Thank you Russell for another great article!

    Knowing when birds and geese are present in Erebus Bay would give us an idea of what season the men were there. July maybe?

    A minimum of 11 individuals were represented in the remains found at NgLj-2. During the 1993 excavation, Barry Ranford and John Harrington discovered 3 skulls at another site nearby. I assume this was not added into the total for NgLj-2. The 3 skulls were left in situ and relocated in 1994. Beattie found the remains of 6 to 14 individuals at McClintock's Boat Place. This means 20 to 28 crewmen died in the area.

    One thing that seems strange though is the 40 pounds of chocolate found by McClintock's search. I would expect anything eatable to have been consumed as the supplies ran out and before cannibalism would occur. Perhaps the men in McClintock's boat were from a later, less desperate, party.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Many thanks for your comment. I think you are referring to the site known as NgLj-3, about 1.5 kilometres southwest of NgLj-2. According to the Bertulli report, it contains "the disturbed graves of at least three individuals ... two skulls have been disinterred and rolled some distance away from the graves, and the third is still partially interred." The report credits Ranford and Harrington, and notes that the skulls are missing most of the facial portions and thus could not be definitively identified as Caucasian.

    Is there a definitive report by Beattie as to the disposition of remains at the Boat Place? I do think your total seems roughly right.

    The tea and chocolate are a continued source of puzzlement. While the chocolate was at least caloric, which suggests something other than starvation, it's hard to be certain about the disposition of the men in the boat. Both were missing crania, as I recall, and one was frozen with rifle in hand, one barrel still charged, though whether against animal or human foes may never be known ...

  3. Just a thought about the chocolate. I always imagined this was what today we would call cocoa, i.e., powdered for mixing with water to make hot drinks. If so it's a lot less palatable, especially if frozen, than bars of eating chocolate. If it was drinking chocolate, it makes sense that it was co-located with tea. I think McClintock's account may give a bit more information - I'll look it up.

  4. Good question about the chocolate. In his published narrative, McClintock remarks that he found "tea and chocolate ... of the former very little remained, but there were nearly 40 pounds of the latter." He doesn't describe in that passage, but in the appendix he lists "4 cakes of Navy chocolate." Evidently one of these cakes weighed about 10 pounds. This may well have been "White's Royal Navy Chocolate" or something similar, but that's just a guess ... in any case, it would not have been powdered, though it could have been the sort that crumbled easily.

  5. It appears from such research as I've been able to conduct that "Royal Navy Chocolate" generally meant large bricks or cakes of chocolate, and that it was not generally sweetened. Have a look at an old advert I found for a Canadian brand of this product:

  6. Russel: you are amazing!

    Still, it looks like it was intended for drinking. Checking through my faithful (signed) copy of Cyriax, I note he says the two ships together carried 9,450 lbs of chocolate, which is grouped in with tea and lemon juice in his list. Which means the chocolate which wound up at the boat place represented 0.4% of the total carried on the two ships...

  7. I'm sure that you're right that the chocolate was originally intended for drinking. I can only imagine, though, that it was taken on the whaleboat as a concentrated food supply; the difficulties of preparing chocolate for drinking outside of the ships would have been daunting. However consumed, chocolate would have been a fairly caloric food, and not an unwise choice. When I was doing the outdoor scenes for the ITN/NOVA documentary near Gjoa Haven, we routinely consumed hot chocolate and candy bars in great quantities; one needs considerably more calories to keep up one's body temperature when it's 20 below!

    And a signed copy of Cyriax! I had no idea you were that old ;-)

  8. Some snippets on Navy Chocolate which may be of interest:

    Here's an 1849 sample left at Port Leopold by Sir James Ross in 1849:

    Dr Andre Ure explains his role in its development in this 1845 book:

    It was later described as "a drinking chocolate made to a special Admiralty recipe". Private sector manufacturers seem to have had a higher proportion of sugar to cocoa, hence the daily ration of travelling parties from HMS Resolute was either 1 oz of Ship's Chocolate plus 1oz of sugar or 1 1/2 oz of Moore's Chocolate plus 1/4 oz of sugar.

    I think that a newspaper report of the NgLj-2 findings was what initially sparked my interest in the Franklin expedition. It's a shame that Margaret Bertulli's fieldwork report seems to never have been published - maybe she could be persuaded to make it available online?


  9. Hello Peter,

    Many thanks indeed for the addition refs & links on Navy Chocolate -- fascinating stuff! It sounds as though the improvements made under Ure's direction at the Clarence yard would, supposing they were carried out effectually, have meant that post-1852 "Navy Chocolate" would have been less irritating to the bowels due to the removal of husk material. The lower proportion of sugar, however, would have lessened its overall caloric value per pound of dry weight.

    I agree with you about Bertulli's report -- she sent me a copy years ago, and I'd be glad to xerox it for anyone who's interested -- the basic report, minus the tables of buttons and bird-bones and such, only runs about 25 pages or so.

    It would be even better, though, if the whole thing were to be made available online. I'll get in touch with Margaret and see if there might be a way to do this.

  10. I just took a bite of "unsweetened" chocolate (on an empty stomach). The stuff isn't just tasteless but is very bitter. It took some will to swallow. Someone would only want to eat it to avoid starvation. In addition to the awful taste, unsweetened chocolate is hard and tends to crumble.

    This was only one bite so the effects of eating a larger piece are unknown.

    I am interested in obtaining a copy of Bertulli's work(s). They are cited in Keenleyside's paper. It would be great if they could be uploaded everyone here would probably want a copy too.

  11. The numbers in my post came from "Frozen In Time." The Boat Place was rediscovered in 1982. Beattie wrote the following paper in 1983 but I do not know what the paper's exact contents are.

    "Discovery of Human Remains from Sir John Franklin's Last Expedition - 1845-1848, 1851-1967" Owen B. Beattie and James M. Savelle Volume 17 (2) of Historical Archaeology, 1983

    If the men had rested their heads on the gunwales then the crania may have fallen to the ground. The dressed and intact man had two double barreled shotguns. These were leaning up against the boat's gunwale and each had only one barrel loaded.

    I would like to dedicate a future blog entry, on my own site, to McClintock's boat.

  12. Chris, thanks for the citation, and the mention of your blog -- I will look forward to your "Boat Place" entry! Thanks also for the excellent list of Franklin articles now available online.

    You're right about the crania, although I suspect the local polar bears played some role in their detachment!

  13. p.s. I will set about scanning the Bertulli report -- if I can get her permission, I will post it online; otherwise at least I can send an electronic copy to interested parties ...

  14. Chris,

    I'll be very interested to read your take on McClintock's 'boat place'. I've just reread 'The Voyage of the Fox'. McClintock says what they saw there “transfixed us with awe”, which is a strange phrase. He describes the remains in the front of the boat as “in too much disturbed a state to ... judge whether the sufferer had died there; large and powerful animals, probably wolves, had destroyed much of this skeleton”. The other one was “in a somewhat more perfect state, and was enveloped with clothes and furs; it lay across the boat, under the after-thwart”. The guns “were two double-barrelled guns — one barrel in each loaded and cocked — standing muzzle upwards against the boat's side.” He says that “no part of the skull of either skeleton was found, with the exception only of the lower jaw of each”. The skulls were not on the ground near the boat as “the snow was then removed from about her, but nothing whatever was found”.

    At the time he was employed by Lady Franklin, who had set her heart violently against evidence for cannibalism among Franklin Expedition survivors. McClintock's account should be read carefully in this context because I don't think he would have felt it possible to use the 'c-word'. It's hard to see that a pack of wolves would “destroy much” of one skeleton yet leave another nearby articulated and clothed. Like the painting 'Man proposes, God disposes', I think this is a clear, coded reference that he felt the articulated skeleton was that of a man who had lived for while off the remains of the disarticulated body in the front of the boat. He also makes it explicit that while the jawbones were present, the skulls had not simply toppled over the edge of the boat but had been removed intact from the scene. Would a bear or a wolf do this? I'm afraid this implies that, at the very last, some of the men may have lived or, and even preyed on, each other, and it was this that 'transfixed' McClintock. It certainly did me when I first read his account in the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum (before I discovered google books).

    These men have never been identified, though it is odd that McClintock thought the disarticulated skeleton was that of an officer and the articulated one not. I find it personally distressing that, depending upon who these men were, I may know quite a lot about them. It's very sad to have to write about them in this way but I'm afraid what McClintock said, backed up by modern archaeological evidence, doesn't leave much doubt that the final days of the survivors on the west coast of King William Island were truly horrific. I wish I could say 'may they rest in peace' but I'm not sure they have.



  15. William, Thanks for your thoughtful and wonderfully written posting. I do agree with you that M'Clintock was doing his best to avoid any language which would give the supposition of cannibalism any ground, but even if we suppose he did not allow himself to reach that conclusion about the skeletons in the boat, he was surely standing within a kilometre of one of the worst sites where it took place. I did see, while at the exhibition at Dundalk, some pages from M'Clintock's private field journals from his earlier sledging expeditions; I wonder if he kept one on this trip, and if so where it would be ... Allen Young published some excerpts from his in the Cornhill Magazine, but he doesn't offer much new: "Clearing away the snow, he found in the bottom of the boat two human skeletons, one of which was under a heap of clothing. There were also watches, chronometers, silver spoons, money, &c., besides a number of Bibles, prayer and other religious books; and although one of the Bibles was underlined in almost every verse, yet not a single writing was found to throw further light upon the history of the retreating parties. There were two guns, one barrel of each being loaded and cocked, as if these poor fellows had been anxiously longing for a passing bear or fox to save them from starving; for nothing edible was found, save some chocolate and tea, neither of which could support life in such a climate. "

    But let's move this over to Chris's blog, eh?

  16. Question - does anyone know what happened to the actual whaleboat at the "boat place"?

  17. The stem and part of the forward section of the boat are at the National Maritime Museum, where they've been part of the small, permanent Franklin exhibit. Nore sure about the rest of the boat, though an wood left behind would certainly have been scavenged by the Inuit.