Terror Bay where the sunken ship the HMS Terror lies, near Gjoa Haven Nunavut, on September 3, 2017. Parks Canada is launching a new initiative in Nunavut to collect and share the testimony of Inuit elders who have knowledge of the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845. The project is seeking a contractor to conduct archival research and record interviews with Inuit elders with historical knowledge of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror shipwreck sites. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Terror Bay where the sunken ship the HMS Terror lies, near Gjoa Haven Nunavut, on September 3, 2017. Parks Canada is launching a new initiative in Nunavut to collect and share the testimony of Inuit elders who have knowledge of the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845. The project is seeking a contractor to conduct archival research and record interviews with Inuit elders with historical knowledge of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror shipwreck sites. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Thumbprint, hairbrush: Franklin wreck in Nunavut waters reveals sailors’ lives

In 2019, the Parks Canada team produced extraordinary images of the HMS Terror

It was as if the past literally reached out and touched him.

Parks Canada archaeologist Marc-Andre Bernier spent last summer diving into the wreck of the HMS Erebus, the flagship of the Franklin expedition, which sank about 1848 while searching for the Northwest Passage in the waters of what is now Nunavut.

That day, he and his colleagues swam into the pantry of Captain John Franklin.

There on a counter, under a coat of sediment, was a block of sealing wax, the mark of its London maker still legible. On the end, where you would snuff the flame after dripping closed a letter, was a thumbprint — the lingering mark of an individual seaman, dead for 170 years.

“It’s what the work of an archaeologist is about,” said Bernier.

“We get to touch history and touch individuals. You’re down there and you remove things, uncover the sediments, and they slowly appear. To see this unfold before your eyes, it is quite the charge.”

The Erebus and its sister ship, the HMS Terror, set out from England in 1845. Franklin and his 129 men never returned. More than 30 expeditions tried to find them. A few artifacts, graves and horrible tales of cannibalism is all they uncovered.

But with a blend of Inuit oral history and systematic, high-tech surveys, the Erebus was found in 2014 and the Terror two years later.

In 2019, the team produced extraordinary images of the HMS Terror when they guided a robotic camera through its sunken passageways.

Last year, taking advantage of continued good weather and diving suits heated with hot water piped from the surface, the team was able to visit the Erebus for dives as long as three hours.

They focused on three rooms on the port side, seemingly untouched since they were abandoned.

READ MORE: Canadian archeological teams to excavate, map wrecks of Franklin expedition

“All three had areas where you would find things on shelves as they had been left,” Bernier said.

Divers used an underwater vacuum to remove decades of silt, documented the precise location of any artifacts, then brought them to the surface. There, the items were cleaned further and catalogued by Jonathan Puqiqnak from the nearby community of Gjoa Haven.

Slowly, among 350 artifacts hauled to the surface, traces of individual lives began to emerge.

A hairbrush, hairs still in it. A toothbrush. A pair of epaulets in the bottom of a drawer. China plates stacked up like at an antique sale. Coffee beans. Pencils. Bits of an accordion. A bottle of what once held brandy or port, liquid still sloshing inside.

A lead stamp with the name of Franklin’s steward, Edmund Hoar.

A wool mitt — “you could put your hand into it and wear it tomorrow,” Bernier said.

Intriguingly, objects belonging to sailors posted to Terror were found on Erebus.

“How come this is on board the Erebus?” asked archaeologist Ryan Harris. ”Was he transferred? Did he die and the object (was) recovered?

“We don’t know. But we can start in just one season to have that type of information to understand and link them to individuals, to try and tell personal stories and try to identify the movement of individuals.”

Time may be running short. Since the Erebus was found, the team has noticed significant deterioration.

Parts of the deck are shifting and collapsing. Bernier, in dives to the wreck, has heard beams bumping into planks driven by large swells on the surface.

Erebus is in shallower water than Terror, and shrinking ice cover may no longer be protecting it from storms, which seem to be getting larger. One storm this season had three-metre swells — large enough for the troughs to nearly expose the wreck.

“That’s why there’s this urgency,” said Bernier. ”We can see the changes.”

READ MORE: 20 things we bet you didn’t know about the Franklin Expedition

Parks Canada’s conservation lab is deciding which objects are in most urgent need of preservation or study. The hairs from the brush, for example, have been extracted and will go for DNA analysis.

Next year, the team plans to expand excavation into neighbouring cabins of the Erebus. They’ll try to map the lower spaces on both wrecks. And there’s always a return to the Terror, where officers’ cabins are so well-preserved that Harris jokes the excavation will be more like housekeeping.

“Dusting the shelves and raising things to the surface.”

Future plans for both ships will be decided between Parks Canada, the government of Nunavut and Inuit. Meanwhile, they are being guarded by local Inuit.

“It’s going to be a challenge to apportion our time between these two amazing shipwrecks,” Harris said.

“One thing we can say: if the ice and the weather co-operate, we fully expect next season to be even more productive.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

historyParks Canadaresearch

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

A silver teaspoon and sugar tongs, part of a collection of new artifacts from the wreck of the Franklin Expedition’s HMS Erebus, are seen at Parks Canada Conservation Laboratories in Ottawa, on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

A silver teaspoon and sugar tongs, part of a collection of new artifacts from the wreck of the Franklin Expedition’s HMS Erebus, are seen at Parks Canada Conservation Laboratories in Ottawa, on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Parks Canada diver Brandy Lockhart picks up a decanter bottle recovered from the HMS Erebus during a dive in August of 2019 in this handout photo. It was as if the past literally reached out and touched him. Parks Canada archaeologist Marc-Andre Grenier spent last summer diving into the wreck of the HMS Erebus, the flagship of the Franklin expedition, which sank around 1848 in the waters of what is now Nunavut while searching for the Northwest Passage. This day, he and his colleagues swam into the pantry of Captain John Franklin himself. (Charles Dagneau, Parks Canada)

Parks Canada diver Brandy Lockhart picks up a decanter bottle recovered from the HMS Erebus during a dive in August of 2019 in this handout photo. It was as if the past literally reached out and touched him. Parks Canada archaeologist Marc-Andre Grenier spent last summer diving into the wreck of the HMS Erebus, the flagship of the Franklin expedition, which sank around 1848 in the waters of what is now Nunavut while searching for the Northwest Passage. This day, he and his colleagues swam into the pantry of Captain John Franklin himself. (Charles Dagneau, Parks Canada)

Underwater Archaeology Manager for Parks Canada Marc-Andre Bernier shows a lead stamp marked “Ed. Hoar” that was recovered from the Franklin Expedition’s HMS Erebus during a press conference at Parks Canada Conservation Laboratories in Ottawa, on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Underwater Archaeology Manager for Parks Canada Marc-Andre Bernier shows a lead stamp marked “Ed. Hoar” that was recovered from the Franklin Expedition’s HMS Erebus during a press conference at Parks Canada Conservation Laboratories in Ottawa, on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

A Royal Navy lieutenant’s epaulette, part of a collection of new artifacts from the wreck of the Franklin Expedition’s HMS Erebus, is shown at Parks Canada Conservation Laboratories in Ottawa, on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

A Royal Navy lieutenant’s epaulette, part of a collection of new artifacts from the wreck of the Franklin Expedition’s HMS Erebus, is shown at Parks Canada Conservation Laboratories in Ottawa, on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Archaeological Scientist Despoina Kavousanaki, left, shows Stanley Anablak, president of Kitikmeot Inuit Association, Pamela Gross, president of Inuit Heritage Trust, and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson new artifacts discovered from the wreck of the Franklin Expedition’s HMS Erebus at Parks Canada Conservation Laboratories in Ottawa, on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Archaeological Scientist Despoina Kavousanaki, left, shows Stanley Anablak, president of Kitikmeot Inuit Association, Pamela Gross, president of Inuit Heritage Trust, and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson new artifacts discovered from the wreck of the Franklin Expedition’s HMS Erebus at Parks Canada Conservation Laboratories in Ottawa, on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Just Posted

Cole Moore with one of his sisters, Jasmin Moore. Photo supplied
Courtenay man looks to brain surgery for second chance

Cole Moore’s sister sets up GoFundMe to help father looking after brother

Comox Valley RCMP had access to 20 Street blocked off between Cousins and Choquette avenues as they conducted a raid of a house on the block. Photo by Terry Farrell
Nineteen people arrested, charges expected in Courtenay house raid

Investigators are continuing to comb through evidence seized

Demonstrators gathered Friday, March 5 at the Courtenay Court House, demanding protection of old-growth forests. Scott Stanfield photo
Concerned citizens march in Courtenay in name of old-growth rainforests

The Comox Valley is one of the B.C. communities engaged in mobilization… Continue reading

LUSH Valley’s partnership with School District 71 this past year helped feed 200 students and families through the Good Food Box program. Screenshot, LUSH Valley/Comox Valley Schools video
LUSH Valley-Comox Valley School Good Food Boxes fed 200 families in 2020

Non-profit organization is looking for new ways to collaborate with school district

Dr. Sandra Allison and Dr. Charmaine Enns joined school district senior staff for a virtual town hall meeting to address the latest COVID concerns in schools. Image, screenshot
No secondary cases in Comox Valley schools, say health officers

School district hosts virtual town hall to address recent COVID-19 cases in schools

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C. on the COVID-19 situation. (B.C. government)
Dr. Bonnie Henry predicts a ‘post-pandemic world’ for B.C. this summer

‘Extending this second dose provides very high real-world protection to more people, sooner’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The CVRD building in Courtenay.
Comox Valley organizations in need receive funding

The Comox Valley Regional Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) has approved $55,000 in… Continue reading

Malawian police guard AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines after the shipment arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi, Friday March 5, 2021. Canada is expecting its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine next week. (Associated Press/Thoko Chikondi)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 cases climb to 634 Friday, four more deaths

Currently 255 people in hospital, 66 in intensive care

A crashed helicopter is seen near Mt. Gardner on Bowen Island on Friday March 5, 2021. Two people were taken to hospital in serious but stable condition after the crash. (Irene Paulus/contributed)
2 people in serious condition after helicopter goes down on Bowen Island

Unclear how many passengers aboard and unclear where the helicopter was going

Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. transgender inmate to get human rights hearing after being held in mostly male jail

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Amber Prince on March 3 dismissed the pretrial’s application to have Makayla Sandve’s complaint dismissed

Supporters rally outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church is in court to appeal bail conditions, after he was arrested for holding day services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘Law remains valid:’ Pastor accused of violating health orders to remain in jail

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor

A virtual public hearing for a rezoning application for a Comox property was held on March 3. Black Press file photo
No comments at public hearing for Anderton Road rezoning application

The virtual public hearing was held on March 3 for the Comox properties

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

Most Read