Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Parks Canada 2023 finds

Marc-André Bernier examines the seaman's chest
The news is in: Parks Canada has just made its first official release of results from the 2023 dive season. It was a relatively short one -- just twelve days -- but the objects recovered from HMS Erebus are remarkable both for their number -- said to be in the hundreds -- and for the light that those so far publicly identified cast upon the lives of those aboard Franklin's flagship.

It's a slow and patient process, as divers have to ensure that they disturb the context of the objects they recover as little as possible, knowing full well that this means that there will always be items that must wait until the next dive season. The Underwater Archaeology Team (UAT) has been moving slowly through the accessible spaces of Erebus, continuing their work on the captain's steward's storage area just forward of Franklin's Great Cabin, and looking into one of the officer's rooms -- likely that of lieutenant H.T.D. Le Vesconte. At the same time, with an eye to learning more about the onboard lives of regular sailors, a seaman's chest in the fo'c'sle -- forward of the wardroom but astern of the sick bay -- was investigated. The finds in each of these areas have already transformed our understanding of the lives of Franklin's men, even as we must be cautious -- since such a small portion of all the artifacts on board has yet been recovered -- of the ways in which finds yet to be found may re-shape the story.

Beginning with the captain's steward -- Edmund Hoar -- new items have been found in what was likely a storage area of which he was in charge. Notable among these is a bottle, embossed with the "broad arrow" signifying government property, as well as a letter "K." Dubbed the "K bottle" (after a compressed-air bottle in quite common use among divers), it may contain some sort of medicine; similar bottles with different letters have been recovered from marine sites elsewhere in Canada. The location seems to have been well-contained, which suggests that perhaps Hoar, or the Captain he served, had some need of it. Further along the companionway, a room believed to be likely that of H.D.T. Le Vesconte disclosed an unexpected find: the reel of a fishing rod (found with other parts of a fishing kit), which quite alters one's imagined view of Le Vesconte or any Franklin officer if the room were theirs. Once, we knew them only in their dress uniforms; now we must imagine at least one of them with rod and reel, which conjures up quite a different image.

But it's the seaman's chest in the fo'c'sle that piques the imagination most -- among the objects within appear to have been some pistols, one of which has been recovered to the surface and will be undergoing conservation. Why would side-arms have been kept in such a chest? Were they stored there under lock and key in case of need, or perhaps cached for safety when the ship was deserted? It's worth noting that the Royal Marines would have shared this area with the regular sailors, and yet such pistols were not necessarily standard equipment (though Nelson's navy had its sea-service pistols). One thinks also of the long rifles hanging from the beam in Terror's great cabin -- was the attitude toward firearms more relaxed while on Arctic service? More context is certainly needed to answer such questions; it may perhaps emerge in future dive seasons, when the chest is further excavated.

It's the suggestive and enigmatic quality of these objects that makes them so special. My personal favorite is a stoneware bowl, also found in the chest; unlike the fancy flo-blue and transferware from the officers' mess, the regular sailors would surely have made do with humbler vessels, and this is one. It's a reminder that, both in written records and in artifacts, the daily life of most of the men aboard Franklin's ships has only just now begun to be accounted for.