Wednesday, May 24, 2023

A Visit with Parks Canada (part 2 of 3)

Charles Dagneau, Cindy Lee Scott, and Jonathan Moore
Our tour now commenced in earnest. One of the first staff members we met was Cindy Lee Scott, who among her other responsibilities is in charge of the making of replicas of artifacts for display. She was particularly excited to show us her new and larger 3D printer, along with a series of preliminary versions of the replica of the sword hilt found aboard HMS "Erebus." Through looking at these alongside one another, we could see how corrections were made, including those of precise scale, before the final version for the Death in the Ice was produced. Later on, we were able to see the original hilt; it was remarkable to see how every exact detail had been matched.

Trial hilts
Cindy Lee then continued guiding our tour, taking us to other departments such as the reproduction lab, the paper lab, and finally the objects lab. There, we saw numerous artifacts still undergoing various processes to stabilize their materials. In a large tank, we saw the recovered cannon, now down to its final few baths, its surface looking as smooth and sharp as it must have when it was mounted aboard ship. Later, we saw the three cannonballs that were found inside its bore; they'd been difficult to extract, explained Parks archaeologist Charles Dagneau, and had to eventually be mechanically "scooped" out. Cindy Lee's enthusiasm for her work, and the excitement she and other staff based at the lab felt about the process of conserving the recovered items from the ship, came through loud and clear.

Near these tanks, we also saw a freeze-dryer, in which paper, wood, and certain other organic items were being treated. Here, the goal is to extract all moisture, something which sometimes follows, and sometimes precedes, other treatment. Wood, of course, can pose a special challenge, as when it dries it also loses a good portion of some of its internal material; this then has to be replaced with polyethylene glycol (known as PEG in the trade). Many will recall the wreck of the Mary Rose, which after being brought to the surface and reconstructed, had to constantly be sprayed with cold water to prevent this loss, and thereafter with PEG to replace the lost water so that each element would maintain its structural strength. The process is similar with much smaller wooden items.

The wheel of Breadalbane
Each type of wood or metal may have varying requirements, and artifacts with more than one type pose a special challenge. One of the most challenging ever was the ship's wheel of the Breadalbane, a supply ship and part of a Franklin search convoy, which sank off Beechey Island in 1853. It was removed by the ever-intrepid Joe MacInnis, who had discovered the wreck in 1980 -- against the strong advice of archaeologists -- and spent many many years in conservation due to its several types of wood and different metals. It rests now in a custom-made case in Parks's conservation facility, a testimony both to the Franklin search and the care and persistence of conservators.

In my next installment, I'll be taking my readers into that same vault where the wheel is stored -- specifically to those shelves on which those Franklin artifacts that have made it through the conservation process are stored!

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