In 1845, famed English explorer Sir John Franklin set out with two ships and some 129 sailors in search of the legendary Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In one of history’s most disturbing disappearances, Franklin, his ships and his men vanished without a trace somewhere in the Canadian Arctic the following year. Flash forward nearly 170 years to the fall of 2014, when underwater archaeologists discovered one of Franklin’s ships near King William Island, in the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut. A recent excavation of that shipwreck—the HMS Erebus—has turned up a collection of artifacts that researchers hope will shed some light on the enduring mystery of Franklin’s doomed expedition.
By the time he sailed from Greenhithe, England, on May 19, 1845 at the head of two ships and some 129 men, 59-year-old Sir John Franklin had already traveled to the Arctic three times with the intention of charting the Northwest Passage. The HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were both converted bomb vessels that had been used for polar exploration before; the state-of-the-art ship were reinforced for operation in ice and loaded with enough supplies for a three-year expedition. In August, two British whaling vessels, the Enterprise and the Prince of Wales, made contact with Franklin’s ships near Baffin Island. Aside from local Inuits in the Canadian Arctic, the whalers were last to see Franklin and his men alive.
Between 1848 and 1859, more than 30 search parties combed the Arctic for signs of the Erebus, Terror and their crews. Finally, a vessel privately chartered by Franklin’s devoted wife, Lady Jane Franklin, found the only surviving record of the expedition located under a stone cairn at Victory Point on King William Island. According to the document, the ships were trapped in ice near the island sometime in 1846 and remained stuck there for about a year and a half. By April 1848, some 24 men had died, including Franklin. The remaining survivors deserted the ships at that time and the note recorded their intention to set off on foot in search of help. None would survive the journey.
Researchers believe many of the sailors may have perished from pneumonia or other illnesses related to hunger and exposure. Remains later recovered from graves on King William Island and nearby Beechey Island showed cut marks on some of the bones, suggesting that some of the desperate survivors may have resorted to cannibalism.
In September 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada announced that underwater archaeologists working as part of the Victoria Strait Strait Expedition had located the wreck of one of Franklin’s ships in the shallow waters of Queen Maud Gulf, near King William Island. The team of archaeologists found the ship had been extremely well preserved, and soon identified it as the HMS Erebus. The second of Franklin’s ships, the HMS Terror, remains missing.
This past April, a team of divers led by Ryan Harris of Parks Canada and supported by Canada’s Department of National Defense and the Royal Canadian Navy (as well as the New York Air National Guard, which helped transport the necessary equipment to an ice encampment at Queen Maud Gulf) continued their excavations of the wreck of the Erebus. After boring through some 6.5 feet (2 meters) of sea ice to get to the shipwreck, the team brought a number of objects to the surface, including a small patent medicine bottle with an unidentified liquid inside and two brass tunic buttons typical of the ones issued with British Royal Navy tunics after 1812.
Among the smaller artifacts recovered from the Erebus, these items are also among the more personal, providing a glimpse—however small—into the lives of the sailors lost aboard Franklin’s ships. On the other end of the size spectrum, the largest item divers recovered is a cannon weighing around 680 pounds (390 kilograms), which would have been capable of shooting six-pound cannonballs. The gun was listed among three that sailed with the Erebus in 1845. As Harris told ) LiveScience, the sailors “had to be prepared, even though it was generally acknowledged that they would be sailing under a flag of scientific neutrality.” Earlier excavations of the wreck last fall turned up the large bronze bell that would have been used to mark the changing of shifts for the sailors aboard the Erebus, along with the time. Covered with algae and rust, the bell was nonetheless clearly stamped with the broad arrow symbol of the British Royal Navy, and embossed with the date “1845.”
A total of 15 artifacts pulled from the wreck of the HMS Erebus went on display last month at the Canadian Museum of History, and can now be viewed online in a virtual exhibit at the Parks Canada website. Further exploration of the Erebus is expected to continue for years, in combination with the search for the HMS Terror, which archaeologists believe may lie further north in the Victoria Strait.