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Captain's Log: Archeologists outdoing themselves at Erebus Bay

September 10, 2012 11:18 AM

Government of Nunavut archeologist Doug Stenton kneels beside a cairn erected at the Erebus Bay site on King William Island in 1994 by the Government of Northwest Territories in memory of the lost men of the Franklin expedition.

(Bill Noon, a 31-year veteran of the Canadian Coast Guard, is a captain on the icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier as it completes its 2012 Arctic mission and offers a two-week support stint to the Parks Canada-led search for the missing ships of explorer Sir John Franklin.)

Day 16 Sept. 7, 2012, 1850h

The fog rolled in early, about 0400h, and lasted on and off for most of the morning.

The winds increased throughout the morning, increasing to 25 knots with gusts up to 30 knots. The Gannet and Kinglett survey launches went out early, as has been their habit, but the Gannet began experiencing some minor electrical problems, requiring the replacement of its alternator.

Andrew maintains a good supply of spare parts for the Canadian Hydrographic Service's launches, so the replacement was done quickly and the Gannet was sent back out to resume work after supper.

Unfortunately, at about the same time, the growing wind and wave conditions required that the Kinglett and the Martin Bergmann stopped work to take shelter in a small bay for several hours to give respite to their crew while the Laurier moved closer to their position to retrieve them.

We also kept the AUV on deck most of the day until it could be safely launched.

And back to the onboard programming, terrestrial archeologists Doug and Robert are quickly becoming unrivalled superstars.

Last week at Cape Felix, they located percussion caps (used to fire guns), screws (some marked with a small arrow branding them as military property to discourage theft), square iron and copper nails, a piece of a ceramic pipe, glass bottle fragments and canvas (used for tents, sails and other purposes).

But you're only as good as your last find, and this week they've outdone themselves again on Erebus Bay.

Doug and Robert visited a Franklin site on the coast of Erebus Bay, known as the Boat Place because of the discovery by M'Clintock's search party of a boat and sled that had been hauled by Franklin's men after they had abandoned the ships.

Doug had been at this site last year when he repaired the burial cairn after some likely polar bear vandalism.

The cairn contains the remains of at least 11 of Franklin's crew. These bones were excavated and analysed in 1993, and returned to the site in 1994 for burial. 

A cairn was erected at the site in 1994 by the Government of Northwest Territories in memory of the lost men. The plaque inscription placed on the cairn reads: "To the memory of the crew members of Sir John Franklin's expedition of 1845 who died here in the spring of 1848."  

A second burial cairn was erected in 1997 at another Franklin site about two kilometres away, and contains the remains of another three of Franklin's men.

Its plaque reads: "Here rest the remains of members of the Northwest Passage Expedition of 1845 commanded by Sir John Franklin." 

At both sites, the archeologists found more types of nails, screws, buttons, glass and copper pieces similar those found at Cape Felix.

But new finds at the Boat Place included a concentration of wood, a copper button with a manufacturer's stamp and some additional human remains (including teeth, ribs, and arm and leg bone fragments).
Out of respect for the lost men, their remains were added to those already interred in the cairn.

The new artifacts will be added to the Government of Nunavut's archeology collection, as per the archeological permit requirements (in case you were wondering, you can't simply show up on these islands and walk away with artifacts).

And besides all of the new artifacts located, Doug and Robert also found a capable new assistant in Peter Mansbridge, who himself made some new discoveries, including a bone toothbrush.

Worth noting is that in 1879, while searching for records of the lost Franklin expedition, Lt. Frederick Schwatka had also reported finding toothbrushes at this same site. I guess if Peter's current stint as a news anchor on CBC's The National doesn't work out, Doug will offer him a job.

Having the Parks Canada underwater archeologists Jonathan Moore and Ryan Harris onboard at the same time was ideal, as their marine expertise helped identify and explain several of these artifacts.

Many lively discussions led by Jon and Ryan have taken place on the Laurier about those broad arrow (↑) naval markings on the screws, the types of cargo and equipment that would have been carried ashore, the types of boat fastenings found, the origin of the wood fragments from the boats and how these new artifacts compared to those of the HMS Investigator found offshore of Banks Island in 2010.

As a wooden boat owner myself, I could not be any luckier, or in better company at this moment in history.


A copper button found at the Erebus Bay site shows manufacturer's markings.

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