Among the dozens of artifacts recovered from HMS Erebus, a fragment of the ship's wheel is one of the summer's more symbolic finds from the Franklin Expedition shipwreck lying in the cold waters off Nunavut.

But that chunk of wood and metal found by Parks Canada underwater archeologists is only one of the clues that will hopefully help unlock the mystery of exactly why Sir John Franklin's mid-19th century expedition to find the Northwest Passage met its demise.

Portion of ship's wheel

A portion of the wheel of HMS Erebus was recovered by underwater archeologists during this summer's exploration of the wreck site in Nunavut. (Parks Canada)

"Everything has a story to tell," says underwater archeologist Jonathan Moore, who along with other Parks Canada team members helped document artifacts ranging from dinner plates to a sailor's boot.

"We're looking at the big picture not only from the artifact assemblage, but also at the specific stories that each artifact can tell.

"Of course, an important thing about these artifacts is where they're found on the ship," Moore adds.

Not everything, however, is actually found lying directly on the Royal Navy shipwreck that was discovered in the shallow waters of Wilmot and Crampton Bay last summer.

The piece of the ship's wheel — a composite wood-and-metal object — was discovered on the seafloor about 30 metres from the vessel. Unexpectedly good weather and clear water in a High Arctic area notorious for changeable conditions allowed the object to be spotted first from the water's surface.

"Unfortunately, it's in fragmentary condition. But it's obviously a highly symbolic, highly important part of that vessel," says Moore.

"As the ship goes, it would have been a relatively exposed, relatively fragile object that at some stage was probably knocked off or pushed off the vessel, perhaps by ice."

Its discovery also serves as a guide for work underwater archeologists are contemplating for the years to come.

"It reinforces the suspicion that we had that we are going to have to do a very thorough examination all around the wreck to identify the extent of the debris field," says Ryan Harris, lead underwater archeologist on the team that has been searching for HMS Erebus and the still-missing HMS Terror for the past few years.

Where's the blade?

Sword hilt

A sword handle recovered from the HMS Erebus wreck this summer poses 'significant conservation challenges,' Parks Canada says, because it is 'delicate and complex.' (Parks Canada)

The wheel remnant and similar finds are, Harris adds, "the sorts of materials that the Inuit I think were identifying washed up on shore and which they harvested for years to follow."

But for those Inuit, whose oral histories proved key in indicating the ultimate location of HMS Erebus, not all the artifacts they might have come across in the 19th century would have held potential value and been collected, so they're still in the area of the wreck.

Take the sword hilt recovered this summer, for example. With its gilded, sharkskin grip, along with its lion head decoration, it's "something we find very attractive," says Harris.

"To the Inuit, it was completely meaningless, something they would have no interest in carrying away."

Yet the sword blade is missing.

"Is that because it is completely corroded and left no trace? Well, possibly, for sure," says Harris.

"But it's interesting to make the comparison to artifacts recovered back in the 19th century that the Inuit bartered with various search parties."

In the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, there is a piece of a naval sword from Erebus that still has the Royal Navy broad arrow mark visible.

"The Inuk that provided it said it had initially been the length of his arm, but they had cut it into shorter pieces because that was more useful to them," says Harris.

Underwater protection

Surveying debris field of HMS Erebus

A Parks Canada underwater archeologist positions reference lines in the debris field near the wreck of HMS Erebus. (Parks Canada)

Much of the work by underwater archeologists this summer focused on methodical preparation for future work on the site, including removal of kelp from the reinforced wooden warship.

"Taking that kelp off was almost like unwrapping a present," says Moore. "It was just an amazing thing to do because you're revealing timbers and structural items and in some cases artifacts that were hidden from view."

As prime as weather conditions initially were this summer, they did turn nasty for a spell, as they usually do for a time each search season. A gale rolled through, spawning five-metre waves and moving artifacts that had been documented around on the vessel.

That's not unusual — underwater archeologists expect some movement on wreck sites, particularly in more dynamic, coastal areas. And in some cases, that may be a good thing.

"In some respects, that can actually serve to protect things better," says Harris.

"The team observed cases where the swell had deposited artifacts into more protected areas. But it's quite possible that artifacts that are on top of the wreck site can work their way down to lower deck areas over time."

No human remains have been observed on the wreck, which leaves open the question of the precise fate of many of Franklin's 128 crewmembers, who all perished. (The bodies of three Franklin crewmembers were found to be well-preserved in their graves on Beechey Island during exhumations in the 1980s.)

What about the big questions?

Helicopter shot of HMS Erebus

Looking down from a helicopter, HMS Erebus is seen resting in 11 metres of water in Wilmot and Crampton Bay. (Parks Canada)

Archeologists also discovered some portions of Erebus's upper deck are less than 100 per cent stable, with deck beams detached from the side of the vessel.

"It's actually somewhat mobile, so we're going to have to be very, very prudent and cautious when we delve deeper into the innards of the wreck site," says Harris.

That delving will involve surface-supplied diving equipment that pipes air down to the divers and can extend the time they remain underwater. After the careful documentation that has been done around the wreck so far, next year's efforts are also expected to include excavation, with a likely focus on Franklin's cabin.

The underwater excavation process is "quite surgical," says Harris. Underwater induction dredges gently expose artifacts.

"Then we stop and we map them all in place, recover what is exposed, and then layer by layer — just like on a land archeology site — work stratographically to document in three dimensions where all the artifacts come from," he says. "That helps us determine how they got there."

Boot

A boot was among the artifacts found during this summer's search of the wreck of HMS Erebus. (Parks Canada)

And that could move archeologists closer to answers for the bigger questions, such as just how Erebus ended up where it did sometime after it and Terror were initially trapped in ice in 1846 and abandoned two years later off King William Island, according to Inuit accounts.

The archeologists caution that they are very much in the infancy of this mission, and it's too early to answer such questions. But they are reading a bit into various clues, such as a shoal near the Erebus wreck, and the fact that the vessel was not at anchor when it sank.

"Quite possibly they either were suddenly swept over a shoal and then were fighting to save the ship with what few hands remained, or perhaps they were nipped in a sudden freeze, as can happen with alarming speed," says Harris.

"We can only speculate at some of these possibilities, but we're starting to amass the information that will eventually lead to these answers."