Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ice Diving on HMS "Erebus"

Ice-diving HMS "Breadalbane" © 2014 DND-MDN Canada
In just a few weeks, divers will return to HMS "Erebus" for a series of dives under the ice, opening a new and promising chapter in the Franklin search. Last fall's dives were severely limited by poor weather and the approach of new-formed ice; now, the very things that were disadvantages then will be advantages. Having a stable, secure platform on which to place equipment and support teams will enable a robust schedule of dives, and no surface weather will interfere. Beyond that, as lead archaeologist Ryan Harris has noted, the water under the ice, protected from surface winds and turbulence, will be calmer, and visibility better.

So what can we expect? A thorough survey of the ship, for one; using lasers, a precise map of the vessel and the surrounding debris can be assembled in three dimensions. We'll know the nature and extent of damage to the vessel, the location of the ships' anchors (which may give us clues as to whether the ship was piloted to this location and deliberately anchored, or drifted), and it's quite possible that additional artifacts in the debris field will be identified and mapped. The dives aren't planned for artifact recovery, but it's possible that, if something is found in plain view and it's already been mapped and photographed, it could be brought to the surface for study and conservation. I would not expect, though, that there will be any attempt to enter deep inside the vessel itself, although a ROV might go in to take some images and measurements. The stability of the vessel will need careful study before divers can enter, and a safe route and protocol established -- so this will likely wait until the late summer dive season.

I'll be particularly interested in the anchors -- were they deliberately deployed? If they were, that would be a key confirmation of Inuit testimony that they saw fresh tracks and deck sweepings near the vessel, and that it was manned when it arrived. And, if it was -- as Ryan Harris recently observed -- then we may have to re-assess Franklin's achievement: reaching the point it did means that the vessel passed Cape Herschel and entered an area already charted by Dease and Simpson -- effectively linking the eastern and western surveys and traversing the last link in the Northwest Passage.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Erebus Medal

It's a handsome design, with elements -- such as the octagonal edge -- from the British Polar Medal, and others, such as the tilted compass rose, that draw from the Victoria Strait Expedition patch. The "Erebus Medal," as it's called, was awarded by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society at a special ceremony yesterday at the Royal Ontario Museum, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper (a recipient) and other dignitaries in attendance.

There are two hundred and twenty recipients in all -- a remarkable number -- with the announced intent of recognizing everyone involved in the 2014 search and the work that made it possible. In that light, of course, it recognizes the crews, the dive team (led by Bernier and Harris), and support staff, along with Doug Stenton and the helicopter pilot whose discovery of ship's remains on land helped point the way to the final discovery. It also recognizes key figures without whom this discovery would never have been possible, such as David C. Woodman -- the first to compile, analyze, and trust the record of Inuit testimony -- and Gjoa Haven resident Louie Kamookak, who has helped guide searchers for many years. And yet the omissions from the list are (in my view) a bit glaring: where is Robert Grenier, who led the very first of the Parks Canada searches? Where are the archaeologists who did pioneering work analyzing Franklin sites, such as Margaret Bertulli, Anne Keenleyside, and John MacDonald? Where are early searchers such as Bob Pilot, Stu Hodgson, the late Barry Ranford, or John Harrington? Why are -- besides the environment minister -- Louie, geographer Caitlyn Baikie, and Peter Taptuna the only Inuit recognized? And then of course there are scholars, us humble blokes -- I was happy to see Shelagh Grant's name, but where are the many others whose research over the past decades has given us new insights into the Franklin search?

Of course, as with any award, there will always be some who are unhappy about those who did -- or didn't -- receive it. It's not quite clear, though, exactly what criteria the RCGS used -- did the recipients have to be living? Did they have to be Canadian? Will there be additional medal recipients in the future? Finally, while there is certainly much to celebrate, there's still a great deal to be done, starting with locating the wreck of the "Terror" and continuing through the just-announced April dive, and many dives to come. And, as I've noted frequently on this blog, there are still some sites on land -- particularly the Todd Islets and Starvation Cove -- which are sorely in need of modern archaeological study; the ships can only tell us the tale of what happened before they were abandoned, and Franklin's men may well have struggled on for many months, or years, after that.

That said, congratulations to all of the recipients are in order -- it's certainly a great honor.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Boat Place(s)?

Anyone with an interest in the Franklin expedition has read a great deal over the years about the "Boat Place" on King William Island. It's identified with the site where Hobson, McClintock's lieutenant, discovered an abandoned whaleboat from one of Franklin's ships, a boat which famously contained two skeletons, as well as an abundance of items, judged "a mere accumulation dead weight" by McClintock, which he catalogued at length: sheet lead, carpet slippers, waterproof canvas, tea, chocolate, a large array of silver utensils, and many books, Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield among them. The boat was also pointing in what seemed the wrong direction: not toward escape, but back toward the last known location of the ships.

Today, the story is a bit different: most Franklin experts, myself and Dave Woodman among them, regard the Erebus Bay site as one which was used for some time, and near which which one or both of Franklin's ships were, for a time, anchored. The period of longer use would explain some of the items the Inuit found there, including heavy metal stoves that would not likely have been dragged overland all the way from Crozier's landing; it would also explain the presence of a boat, not then in use for escape but rather for conveying items to or from a ship not far distant, the contents of which would of course not represent what the men would have laden it with had they anticipated a long journey.

And the "boat place" itself is becoming more uncertain. Hobson and McClintock found only one boat, with two bodies -- both, it should be noted, missing their crania. Hobson also saw, on examining one body, that the small bones of the hands and feet had been left behind in the gloves and socks. There was a rifle and some shot, and one body was wrapped, or rather seated in, a heap of furs.

And yet, one of the first Inuit to visit this area, In-nook-poo-zhee-jook, seems to have found quite a different boat, one which he described to Charles Francis Hall in great detail; in it, he found
Six paddles; many table-knives, white handles; one watch; a spyglass ... something like my (Hall’s) compass, but no glass about it; tobacco that had been wet and was in flakes or thin pieces; very many tin dishes; one whole skeleton with clothes on, —the flesh all on, but dried; many skeleton bones; three skulls. Alongside of the boat a big pile of skeleton bones that had been broken up for the marrow in them; they were near a fire-place; skulls among these. The number of them ama-su-ad-loo (a great many) — cannot tell how many. It is certain that some of the men lived on human flesh, for alongside of the boat were some large boots with cooked human flesh in them.
In addition to many items -- a spy-glass, table-knives, and a compass (all of which, had this boat been the one Hobson and McClintock found, would surely have been taken by them), there are many human remains here, not only in the boat but beside it, and many skulls. Clearly, this was a different boat entirely; it may well have been hidden in the snow back in 1859.

Recently, a study -- not yet available to non-subscribers -- appeared in ARCTIC, written by Anne Keenleyside (one of the first archaeologists to study human remains from this area), Doug Stenton, and Robert Park. They studied the site of a memorial, erected in 1879 by Frederick Schwatka, at what he believed to be "the" boat place. The memorial (see above) had long been taken down, but the packet of bones Schwatka had reburied was still there and in its original arrangement: a squareish cavity with the longer bones stacked side by side, topped with a human cranium like a cherry on some macabre sundae.

Their study shows clear evidence that this is indeed Schwatka's memorial. They found the remains of three individuals, all male and Caucasian, one of whom was probably quite a young man. There were very few cut marks on them, although one bone showed a curious small oval hole, as though it had been punctured by a somewhat blunt pointed instrument. The small bones of the feet and hands were largely missing.

Their study speculates that these may indeed be the bodies from Hobson's boat -- the missing small bones correspond with this, and one of the skeletons was, just as Hobson had noted, unusually large. The small hole might have been made long after their deaths, as a pick-axe was required back in 1859 to free up the bodies from their frozen surroundings.

I think that's quite possibly true, although one would still have to account for the three crania (Hobson's boat itself having zero), and indeed a third body not previously reported. Which means that In-nook-poo-zhee-jook's boat was not this boat. The Schwatka site, tagged NgLj-3, is not very far from NgLj-2, which is on a small, low-lying island surrounded by mud. There, the great abundance of remains, already catalogued back in the 1990's by Margaret Bertulli and Anne Keenleyside, corresponds more closely with a "pile" of bones, skulls among them.

The article, however, makes no mention of any other boat place. It's just one example of the kind of uncertainty which the Franklin search on land faces, with studies all done nearly a century and a half or more after the initial events. Still, it shows how the close, careful work of archaeologists is absolutely vital if we're going to put together the incomplete pieces of this mighty puzzle.