Friday, August 26, 2011

Still Missing: Erebus and Terror

The news has begun to trickle out that this year, the final year of the three-year long Parks Canada search for the lost ships of Sir John Franklin, has ended without result. Apparently, the special remote-controlled underwater probe brought to the search was unable to be deployed, though the reasons for this have not been made public. Of course I am disappointed, though I am also grateful to Marc-Andre Bernier, Parks Canada's chief of underwater archeology, and all the rest of the team for their efforts.

It's all too easy to give armchair advice -- but I do hope there will be further searches. My own view is that, in addition to whatever government efforts may or may not be funded, the Canadian government, as well as the territorial government of Nunavut, could and should do more to promote searches. The permitting process, under CLEY, should be streamlined in every way possible. A number of promising avenues, such as that proposed by Ron Carlson and discussed on this blog, were turned down due to technicalities, most often the absence of a government-credentialled archaeologist. So why not make such archaeologists available? In Carlson's case, he brought -- and essentially donated to the effort -- his own plane and imaging equipment; why not, instead of simply crassly denying him a permit, the territorial government helped find and place a qualified archaeologist to work with him? The cost to the Nunavut and Canada would be minimal, many times less than that of any of the state-sponsored efforts of these last three years. Another bone I have to pick is that I cannot understand why, given his work over many years on the Franklin mystery, David C. Woodman, has not been invited to participate in any of these recent searches. I believe it's unfair, and wrongheaded, to exclude the one person who knows the Inuit testimony better than any man living.

Lastly, I would observe this: in many human endeavors, it's been found that "crowd sourcing" -- the open and free participation of many in tackling a task -- is by far the most efficient way to solve many problems. If (say) the National Archives at Kew, the Maritime Museum at Greenwich, the Arctic Institute of North America, The Scott Polar Research Institute, Parks Canada, and the National Library of Canada got together, put all their resources on one wiki, including high-res imagery of every document and artifact, and a wiki-editable tag map of the search area, I'd wager that enormous progress could be made. Six very expensive days of federally-funded searching are all well and good, but in my experience, historical puzzles of this level of complexity require many voices -- experts and amateurs, Qalluunat and Inuit, historians and archivists, archaeologists and pilots -- the more voices the better.

(Image of the Muster book of HMS "Erebus" courtesy David Malcolm Shein, from the original at the National Archives, Kew)


  1. Bravo Russell. A succinct and fair summation of what is wrong with the present situation, and excellent suggestions for some creative ways forward.

  2. Great commentary! Let's hope more people listen to you!

  3. Well said Russell.

    I was hoping that Parks Canada would find one of the ships this summer. Thanks to them for trying. It's got to be hard to operate up there.

    It was a non-governmental search that found NgLj-2. While the desire to leave site exploration and excavation to professional archaeologists is understandable, the prevention of non-intrusive searches is counterproductive. Moreover, the more time allowed to pass means more damage from ice and wind-driven sands.

    I hope the results from the three summer's work are made public. It would be helpful to know what the bottom of Victoria Strait looks like. How deep is the water along the predicted drift path? Also, a map showing the searched areas would be nice so we know where the ships are not.

    There seems to be a general resistance to releasing information to the public. About a year ago I emailed the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center and asked about obtaining a copy of the list of items found at NgLj-2. There was also some information on animal bones left by the crew. This information might give some insight into life at the Erebus Bay boat-places. I specifically stated that I was not part of or associated with any current or planned Franklin search and that the information was to satisfy my own private interest.

    The Center replied back that they do not generally release such information except to people doing archaeological work directly related to the site in question. The reply stated that this was done to "protect the resource." I chose not to pursue the issue and left it at that. Certainly there are concerns on their side that I don't know about however I would think the items collected are stored somewhere safe. The remains of Franklin's men have been reinterred at the site and location of NgLj-2 is known.

    There have been few details of the searches carried out so far. For example, pieces of copper were found but where? RGS Islands or near Adelaide Peninsula? Maybe Robert Grenier will be able to publish a paper detailing these things.

  4. Chris,thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    I have a copy of the full report of the Ng-Lj2 site work. I can certainly at least scan the lists of objects (including animal bones); I can't see any reason why this shouldn't be made public!

  5. Hi Russell,
    Once again thanks for keeping the community in touch, and for the kind comment on my participation. To be fair I have consulted with Parks as to possible search areas on the last two efforts, however they have been constrained by their partners (mainly hydrographic) to the less-likely north this year. Also my understanding is that the AUV was not ready (software) for deployment and that the survey was simply launch-based again. Nevertheless I know how challenging that can be with long days on the water, and the Parks field-team deserves all credit for their work in eliminating another possibility.

  6. Informative and rational. Might this comment be turned into a publishable letter to an editor or two?

  7. Cynthia, thanks for your kind words. That's not a bad idea ... perhaps I'll work up something and send it to the Globe and Mail ...

    Chris, as to items, other than human bones, recovered at Ng-Lj2: they found "twenty-five faunal bones and fragments" -- most from ringed seal, one bone of a golden plover, one of an Arctic fox, and one possibly of a goose. The report indicates that the archaeologists believed that only the seal bones were in the right depth to have been -- possibly -- associated with Franklin's men.

    Other items recovered were: 1 lens fragment of purple glass, 6 pieces of copper wire gauze, 1 small walnut cylinder, 1 piece of a clay pipe, 1 piece of lead shot, 1 grommet, 9 small glass fragments, 1 buckle, 8 percussion caps, 3 lumps of wax, 23 copper nails, 9 tacks, 7 iron nails, 54 leather fragments, 13 rivet fragments, 16 washers or anchor plates, 1 bone fastener, 1 fragment of a tin can, 35 assorted buttons, and numerous small bits of cloth, most of which were wool consistent with blue serge naval uniforms, along with bits of canvas, blanket cloth, and one lone piece of cotton. Drop me an e-mail if you would like me to copy out the detailed lists & analyses.

  8. Thanks Russell, that is very interesting.

    The men at that site don't seem to have had much, if any, success with hunting.

    It doesn't seem clear to me that McClintock's boat place has ever been re-discovered. Beattie and Geiger described the location of their boat place as matching the description given by Schwatka. However, the site visited by Schwatka may not be the same as that found by McClintock.

    Could NgLj-2 be McClintock's boat place? That would only be possible if the remains found there were not in the immediate vicinity of the boat with the two crewmen. McClintock checked the area around the sledge mounted boat and didn't find anything.

    The true location of McClintock's boat place may have been re-visited in 1993 by John Harrington and Barry Ranford who found three skulls near NgLj-2 along with a wood debris field.

  9. Chris, the official report (as I recall) indicates that Ng-Lj2 was liklely not the "boat place," but that a nearby site -- tagged NgLj3 -- more probably was.

  10. Hello all,
    The subject of the "boat place" is quite confused and descriptions of it misleading. In "Unravelling" I devoted considerable attention to the question of the boats (pg 298-303) and argue that the McClintock and Schwatka boats were different. This is one thing I would change on a rewrite - I subsequently received a photo of the boat prow from the museum that, unlike their earlier letter, showed the McC markings and proved that the same boat was found by both searchers. The other one was removed by the natives (probably Pooyetta's party).

    There are various sites, all within a few kilometers, along the Erebus Bay shore that have been thought to be the "boat place." I visited Ranford at his in '94, but when discussing it with Walt Kowal (who was with Beattie on the original "rediscovery") he confirmed that their earlier discovery was nearby but closer to the water. As my reconstruction posits a large encampment on this shore, and the wreck of one ship just offshore, I would expect widely-separated areas of cultural remains between Little Pt. and the De la Roquette River.