Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Death in the Ice" Comes to Mystic

Inkstand from HMS "Resolute," courtesy Mystic Seaport Musem
It's been a long voyage. "Death in the Ice," which combines relics of the Franklin expedition recovered in the 19th century with new finds from HMS Erebus brought back and conserved by Parks Canada since her discovery in 2014, first set sail, (as it were) at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in the summer of 2017. Its second stop, at the Canadian Museum of History, began in March of this year, and ran through September. And now it comes into port at the Mystic Seaport Museum, in a stop that is both a fresh step on its voyage and also a sort of homecoming. For it's not far from here, in New London, where HMS "Resolute" first docked after being found adrift at sea, and -- even closer -- at the Starr Burying Ground, a fifteen-minute drive away in Groton, where Tookoolito, Charles Francis Hall's translator and guide during his nearly decade-long search for Franklin, lies at rest along with two of her children. The extraordinary roles played by Americans in that search have never been more evident, even as -- for the most part -- the story of the Franklin expedition is less well-known here than in Canada or Britain. There have been harbingers of change, though -- beginning with AMC's extraordinary television series "The Terror," and continuing with the warm reception given here to Michael Palin and his book Erebus: The Story of a Ship -- that this is about to change, and the exhibit in Mystic is about to launch a fresh cannonade.

Mortar shell fired by HMS Terror on the town of Stonington
And, appropriately enough, one of the items unique to this version of the exhibition is a mortar bomb, fired from the 13-inch mortar mounted amidships on HMS "Terror" on the people of Stonington, Connecticut, scarcely ten miles distant, in the War of 1812. Similar shells were "bursting in air" during that same vessel's bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, and are the very same that are sung of in our national anthem. That a ship of war could later become a vessel of discovery is but one of the many revelations that await those who come to visit this magnificent show. Here, nearly all the extraordinary relics of the previous exhibits are joined by this ball, an inkstand, chairs, and china ware from HMS Resolute -- along with a fiddle perhaps played there in the presence of Captain Kellett -- and the Grinnell Desk (on loan from the New Bedford Whaling Museum), one of four "Resolute" desks made by command of Queen Victoria from the timbers of that storied vessel. It is a show not to be missed! -- and opens, appropriately enough, on the first day of the wintry month of December. More information, and tickets, can be found on the Mystic Seaport website here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A bone to pick ...

Skeletal remains uncovered by the 1RCR in 1973
The question of the dispersal of the Franklin expedition over land has always been a difficult one; it's even been hard to say exactly how many individuals are represented by the known skeletal remains. When possible, DNA studies have been of extraordinary importance, telling us for instance that the human remains at Erebus Bay -- previously thought to represent only 11-13 individuals -- in fact include bones from at least 21. This study and others like it have been spearheaded by Doug Stenton, who since his retirement from the Government of Nunavut's Heritage office, has redoubled his efforts to check every known site. One welcome result of this has just appeared in The Polar Record, and it's the most comprehensive one by far. Stenton's study accounts for nearly every known site, and he's followed up by conducting digs whenever a site can be positively identified, and adding the bones and artifacts at those sites into his ever-growing record.

Very sensibly, Stenton strives in this article to classify finds into "confirmed" (sites where the remains can be attributed to Franklin's men with a high degree of confidence), "unconfirmed" (sites where the remains were most probably Franklin-era, but circumstances -- often the fact that the remains are unavailable for study -- prevent confirmation), and "questionable," where he feels that the evidence tends rather toward the sites being unrelated to Franklin. In nearly all cases, his reasoning is sound, but there are some instances where I feel a site has been misclassified. It's no easy task -- one of the hurdles is that historical researchers such as myself have some pieces of the evidence, while archaeologists have hold of others -- and so I think it's germane to go over the evidence on these cases in a more public forum, where all our wisdoms can be collectively applied. There may not be a definitive answer -- but in these few cases a reclassification may be in order.

A perfect instance of this is the skeleton located by the 1st Royal Canadian Regiment in 1973 as part of their "Operation Northern Quest," which I've discussed previously here. Stenton tags this as a "questionable" find, arguing that the presence of faunal bones (caribou) in a period photograph of the remains supports the view that they are more probably Inuit. The case is complicated, because although the 1RCR stated at the time that the bones and other artifacts were sent to the Museum of Man (now the CMH), no record of them there has been found; indeed, by some accounts they were reburied rather than sent to the museum. I've spent quite some time researching this find, and working closely with the 1RCR's regimental historian -- I wish that Stenton had contacted me before making his assessment. In the diaries of expedition members, and articles published in service magazines of the day, the evidence is quite compelling for it being a Franklin site.

First, in an 1974 article in the Sentinel, it's stated by Sergeant R.T. Walsh that "an almost intact skeleton was uncovered among the rocks. Along with it were several shirt buttons and larger jacket buttons ... the skeleton, buttons, and many other relics and artifacts may now be seen at the Museum of Man in Ottawa." Such buttons may be similar to those found by Stenton himself at Two Grave Bay, and used to authenticate that site, but he discounts them here -- and unfortunately, they are unavailable for examination. Secondly, in one of the expedition's diaries, a much more detailed account of the find exists:
"Ingraham and Eddy found the bones of a human forearm and hand on the beach. This seemed recent as the bones were still connected by ligaments. Immediately after this, Willard found bones protruding from the ground by a large rock. A quick check showed this to be an almost complete skeleton in a shallow grave. We thought it to be the bones of a large man; too large for an Eskimo. We uncovered as much of the skeleton as we could without disturbing things. We planned on returning tomorrow morning with the metal detector and shovel. Eddy said he knew where a sheet of plywood could be located on the beach to put the bones on. The skeleton had been covered by several inches of moss and rocks. The skull was not visible to us but the jawbone was there. The armbone found on shore does not appear to have anything to do with the buried skeleton."
In addition to these accounts, I have two higher-resolution photos of the skeleton (Stenton apparently made use of a reproduction from a printed article). The one of the skeleton on the plywood plank is quite clear -- it may well be that what the 1RCR men thought was a human hand was in fact  the bones of a seal flipper -- bear in mind that these men had no archaeological training whatsoever -- which would explain the presence of the same in the photo. The faunal bones may well have also been picked up by them and heaped up, unknowingly, with the human ones. Interestingly, at the Schwatka reburial site earlier studied by Stenton, faunal remains are also present, and probably for the same reason.

This evidence strongly suggests that the skeleton in question here should be reclassified -- at least as "unconfirmed." There's also a ray of hope, as in another reference in the Sentinel, it's stated that the skeleton was reburied rather than brought back to the museum. I think it would be worth checking the area in case it can be relocated -- and then, of course, we'd have much firmer grounds, one way or the other.