VANCOUVER – The recent discovery of a Royal Navy wreck in Canada’s Arctic has opened a historical window onto the 19th century, allowing archeologists to investigate the long, lost Franklin Expedition like a detective would examine a crime scene.
HMS Erebus, the vessel on which Sir John Franklin sailed, and HMS Terror disappeared during an 1845 quest for the Northwest Passage.
The wreck of Erebus, which was found about 11 metres below the surface in the Queen Maud Gulf, was confirmed in September and identified earlier this month.
Marc-Andre Bernier, underwater archeologist with Parks Canada, the agency that has led six major searches for the ships since 2008, said Thursday that his colleagues went to work immediately.
“We have a window to the past, a chance to go 168 years back and look into the last year and the last days of the Erebus,” said Bernier.
“We’re investigators, we’re detectives, as if we’re in a crime scene and collecting every bit of information because that could be a key to understanding what happened.”
He said it wasn’t debris or even parts of the ship his colleagues found, but a wreck that stood four or five metres tall.
A sonar image released when the discovery was announced showed the shipwreck appears to be well-preserved. It showed some of the deck structures were still intact, including the main mast, which was sheared off by the ice when the ship sank.
Bernier said archeologists have to be careful when they bring artifacts to the surface.
Weight ratios change and artifacts must be kept wet because they have rested in a wet environment for nearly two centuries, he added.
“Removing them is a shock, and you start documenting right away, in case they start to deteriorate fast.”
The real work begins in the lab, where archeologists take photos, analyze metals and species of wood and X-ray everything, he said.
“It’s a long process, but it is crucial.”
Diving on the site can’t resume until spring 2015 because this season is over, he added.
The mystery of exactly what happened to Franklin and the crews of 129 has never been solved, and the location of Terror remains a mystery.
An early Franklin search party discovered a note left in a cairn at Victory Point on King William Island that recounted how both ships got trapped in the ice in late 1846 and that Franklin died June 11, 1847.
There’s some debate over whether Franklin’s final resting place is on King William Island or the ship.
Bernier said Inuit accounts, mostly from the 19th century, led searchers to Erebus and could point towards Terror.
“Those same accounts say that one of the ships was further north, so that means we can concentrate in Victoria Strait to find the other one, because that’s where those same accounts are leading us to.”
Four vessels, the Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier, HMCS Kingston and vessels from the Arctic Research Foundation and B.C.-based One Ocean Expeditions, led this past summer’s search.
The One Ocean ship was, in fact, a Russian-flagged vessel known as the Akademik Sergey Vavilov.