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

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a 'person of interest' in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
Man sought in suspicious Kootenay death found in Lake Country

Philip Toner is a person of interest in the death of Brenda Ware

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
65 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Overall, B.C. is seeing a decrease in COVID-19 cases

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a ‘person of interest’ in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
RCMP identify ‘person of interest’ in Kootenay National Park suspicious death

Police are looking for Philip Toner, who was known to a woman found dead near Radium last week

FILE - In this April 19, 2021, file photo, Keidy Ventura, 17, receives her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in West New York, N.J. States across the country are dramatically scaling back their COVID-19 vaccine orders as interest in the shots wanes, putting the goal of herd immunity further out of reach. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
5 more deaths, 131 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health over the weekend

Those 18-years and older in high-transmission neighbourhoods can register for the vaccine

F.W. Green Memorial Home in Cranbrook. Photo courtesy Google Streetview.
Plan for future expansion of F.W. Green Home taking shape

Capital projects underway at East Kootenay Regional Hospital, per update from Interior Health

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police “E” Division Headquarters, in Surrey, B.C., on Friday April 13, 2018. Indigenous leaders are calling for an investigation into the conduct of Mounties on Vancouver Island after two police shootings of members of a small First Nations community in three months. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Indigenous leaders call for clarity, investigation into RCMP after B.C. shooting

The RCMP declined to comment on the requests by Indigenous leaders

Colleen Price, Vancouver Island University’s bachelor of science in nursing program chairperson, says she is impressed with how students have persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Next generation of B.C. nurses already showing resilience

University program head says learning had to be adjusted amidst pandemic

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

Two-year-old Kashius Weme rides at the Steve Smith Memorial Bike Park in Nanaimo on Tuesday, May 11. The youngster’s precocious bike-riding ability is already attracting cycle sponsors. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
2-year-old B.C. bike rider already attracting cycle sponsors

Nanaimo’s Kashius Weme has a knack for extreme cycle sports

Keith MacIntyre - BC Libertarian
Penticton’s Keith MacIntyre new leader of the B.C. Libertarian Party

The Penticton businessman was voted in by members of the party on May 8

Vernon North Okanagan RCMP reported to 287 mental health calls between Jan. 1, 2021, and May 1. (Black Press files)
‘It’s not the police’s responsibility to deal with mental health calls’: Vernon RCMP

RCMP remind public to take care of mental health and well-being, while better solutions are sought

Thompson Rivers University campus is in Kamloops, B.C. (KTW file photo)
Thompson Rivers the 1st B.C. university to supply free menstrual products

The university will offer the products this September

Fraser Health is using ‘targeted’ vaccination clinics in high-risk areas of the Lower Mainland. (Fraser Health photo)
B.C.’s COVID-19 decrease continues, 515 new cases Tuesday

426 seriously ill people in hospital, up from 415 Monday

Most Read