Thursday, February 20, 2020

New finds from HMS "Erebus" revealed!

They sit upon the shoulders in their portraits -- Daguerreotypes taken in May of 1845 -- Franklin and his men, their ghostly images a core part of what made them such a "gallant" crew -- and here is a pair of them, taken from the cabin assigned to Lieutenant James Fairholme aboard HMS "Erebus," 175 years afterwards.

It's quite a moment. For, while a goodly number of the relics recovered by Rae, McClintock, Hall, and Schwatka could be readily associated with their owners, these are the very first items I can think of recovered during the modern archaeological work by the divers of Parks Canada's underwater archaeology team that can be fairly definitively associated with a single individual.

Epaulets -- or epaulettes if one prefers -- have featured in the Franklin story before. Captain Henry Kellett of HMS "Resolute" left his behind when he (very reluctantly, and only under direct orders) abandoned his ship. Against all odds, they were returned to him, brightly polished and still in their case, when the Resolute was returned to Britain in 1854; you can see him wearing them in a portrait painted the following year. Lieutenant Fairholme, alas, is long gone, and can know nothing of this remarkable discovery, though I'm sure it's quite significant to his living family members in Canada and around the world.

More astonishingly still, these are but one of 350 artifacts announced today as the results of Parks Canada's dives in 2019. It was a gloriously long and productive season, and -- despite some rough weather near the end -- has set new benchmark for both the quantity and quality of artifacts recovered. We have seen only a small smattering so far -- a platter, some plates, a pencil case, and a few other items -- mostly from Franklin's steward Edmund Hoare's closet -- but clearly, there are many more to come. Many of them were unveiled in an event today in Ottawa at Parks Canada's conservation center, attended by senior government ministers along with Pam Gross, the head of the Inuit Heritage Trust, along with Stanley Anablak, president of the Kitikmeot Inuit Association. One of the key notes struck was that of continued co-operation and co-curation of all artifacts with Inuit, a crucial element which both underlies and augurs well for these extraordinary finds, and many more to come.

And the story is larger still -- for, even in the most seemingly minor details of each item, many stories more than one remain to be told. A good example is the epaulettes themselves -- for, although found in Fairholme's cabin, they are certainly not the ones which he was photographed wearing in 1845. Why not? Because, as he confessed in a letter home to his father,
“I hope Elizabeth got my photograph. Lady Franklin said she thought it made me look too old, but as I had Fitzjames’ coat on at the time, to save myself the trouble of getting my own, you will perceive that I am a Commander! and have anchors on the epaulettes so it will do capitally when that really is the case.”
Commander Fitzjames's coat -- and its epaulettes -- remain to be found. But this fascinating item never the less tells us of something far more personal than any other artifact yet recovered. It is just a touch, lightly upon the shoulder, to remind us of those who have gone on.


  1. I am thinking that Fairholme - after the ships sailed in May 1845- removed his epaulettes...never to wear them again. There was no need to, in the frozen Arctic .

  2. Before the expedition all went wrong, Fairholme was probably thinking he would wear these next when the ships landed in the Sandwich Islands for resupply. Imagine expecting Hawaii and getting the Arctic for years on end, with no relief in sight!

  3. Surely this has to be the greatest *single* haul of Franklin artifacts we've ever had, Russell?

  4. One recovered artefact is a brush which still had strands of human hair on it. Though not as evocative as Fairholme's forlorn epaulettes, micro analysis of the hairs might end up telling us more about the levels of starvation, scurvy, lead and zinc in the crew at the final stages of their journey.

  5. Thank you for the updates. Interestingly the National Post is reporting the presence of a Chinese coin and wondering why it was there, James Fitzjames would seem the most likely source, beyond the fact the sailors like soldiers and other travelers like to have mementos and curious from far-flung places. Regardless, considering the China, Opium-War connection among several on the expedition, it seemed a particularly poignant artifact. It was also interesting to see the solitary mitten, so similar to the pair first recovered on Beechey Island in the 1850's. It is interesting to note that some areas of the ship appeared to have been cleared out, while others were intact in some sense. It will be interesting if any patterns begin to emerge and what that might tell us, if only some note book, diary, or scrap of writing survives in the sediment, or even a date scratched on a bit of the ships wood.

    1. A good comment! I think they chose the captain's steward's stores because it seemed a rich area -- and these are nearly all items which would never be brought along on a sledge journey -- leave the fine china behind! (though Inuit did report finding quite a few tin plates). I hope that Parks will soon share a full list of artifacts, and then one may be able to sort out, on a grander scale, what was already consumed or taken from what was deliberately left behind.