Monday, December 19, 2022

Potential written material found on HMS Erebus

Image from Parks Canada
 It could be the breakthrough we've all been waiting for since the rediscovery of Franklin's ships -- or it could be just a small and tantalizing addition to what we know. In news covered around the world yesterday, we learned of what Ryan Harris, veteran member of the Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Team (and the first person to see the shadow of "Erebus" on a sonar screen in 2014), called "the most remarkable find of the summer": a leatherbound folio, containing leaves of paper and a quill pen tucked inside its cover, found in the area of the steward's pantry of HMS Erebus.

The dream of finding additional written materials goes back at least to the 1870's, when Jane Franklin asked Sir Allen Young to return to the Arctic in hopes of finding some; she died before he returned, and his expedition found no new papers. The cry of "papers" once again became the motivating factor for Schwatka's search of 1878-80, and while they made some remarkable finds of human remains and other artifacts, the only sheet of paper they recovered turned out to be -- symbolically enough -- a blank one.

We don't know yet whether this new find bears any legible writing -- it's apparently still in the laboratory where paper conservators are patiently working on it -- and of course, even if it did, there's no telling how informative it might be. Other items found earlier in this area were associated with Edmund Hoar, Sir John Franklin's personal steward, and among these a pencil case was prominent. Might the newfound folio be a sketchbook? Then again, why the quill? The best case scenario might be that it might contain both writing and sketches, and we know of at least one other such journal, that kept by Captain's Steward John Messum aboard HMS "Vesuvius" during the Crimean War (1854-55). 

On the other hand, it might contain what might seem to be relatively trivial matter, perhaps some record-keeping of the contents of the Steward's pantry, or -- like the inscrutable "Peglar" papers, a mixture of doggerel verse and cryptic writings. From my own personal perspective, though, even if such a document were most mundane in its entries, each such entry would have one incredibly precious detail: a date. Right now, the lack of any post-1848 timeline is probably the singular most glaring gap in all we know about what Franklin's men did after the desertion of the ships. Were they re-manned? A simple date would tell us so. Abandoned again? When? And, like enormous goalposts, even a tiny handful of such dates would enable use to organize all kinds of other data with much higher accuracy; we would at last begin to know the "lay of the land" (and the water).

And yet, even if it has no information later than the desertion of the vessel, any kind of journal would be a goldmine, the more so if it were Hoar's own. As Franklin's steward, Hoar would have attended him daily, the more so during whatever illness or injury led to his death on June 11th 1847. Indeed, although Jane Franklin described the volume as a "quarto" rather than a folio, this could even be Sir John's long-lost private diary. It certainly fires the imagination!

Every so often, we come upon a document that literally rewrites history -- this newfound folio could well be just such a one -- only time and patient work on its pages will tell.


  1. Quite exiting news, so paper can survive in such environments but would writing survive too? Are there any such cases known?

    1. Yes, both paper and writing are likely to survive -- in part because the paper was mostly cotton rag and the ink in use then was fairly insoluble by water. There are instances of all kinds of both printed and written matter that have survived many years under the sea, like this maths book from RMS "Titanic"!

    2. Thank you for your answer. I hope 2023 will be a good year with lots of discoveries!

  2. Any mundane, dated, entry will be very useful. But we may dream.

    How about: "5 Nov. 1850. First visited by Inuit today, they seemed quite fearful of the men's Guy Fawkes celebrations. Captain Little offered them salt pork but they refused it, as with bread and all food unfamiliar to them. He pointed out our gunpowder stored ashore, and warned them against visiting it. All seemed pleased with trifles exchanged."

  3. This is exciting news to say the least. Even the most mundane of accounting/record keeping lists could prove quite valuable, especially if there are readable dates. A couple of questions if you have time:
    1. Do you have any idea what kind of (reasonable) time frame it would require before we know if anything legible survives? I assume the conservation process will take several months at a minimum and then there might be time for X-ray or other attempts to read the pages if not immediately legible.
    2. If it is readable, any sense of the process to publication for a wider audience?
    3. Do you know how the planned future research/excavation of the wreck will continue?
    One thing I'm curious about, since the debris field is made up of the remains of Franklin's cabin, why didn't the work begin there as opposed to inside the wreck, and since it is working inside, is there a pattern they are following?
    I hope this isn't too much, as ever enjoy the blog and am looking forward to reading the new book.
    Best wishes,

  4. Any news from the lab analyzing the material ?