HMS Erebus dive 'just scratching the surface' of Franklin expedition mystery

They are among the smallest artifacts recovered from the recent dive to Sir John Franklin's HMS Erebus, but the two brass tunic buttons are also the most personal glimpse yet into what happened about the ill-fated 19th-century expedition.

Underwater discoveries not yet revealing what happened on ill-fated 19th-century Arctic mission

They are among the smallest artifacts recovered from the recent dive to HMS Erebus, but the two brass tunic buttons are also offering the most personal glimpse yet into what mysteries the shipwreck may reveal about the ill-fated Franklin expedition in the High Arctic.

The buttons found during the under-ice exploration of the wreck in mid-April, as it lay in the shallow waters of Wilmot and Crampton Bay off the coast of what is now Nunavut, certainly don't answer the big questions about how Sir John Franklin's quest to find the Northwest Passage came to its tragic end nearly 170 years ago.

Buttons recovered at the HMS Erebus wreck show a crowned anchor surrounded by a rope edging, a motif that was found on Royal Navy tunic buttons after 1812. (Parks Canada)

But because the buttons may come from the uniform of a non-commissioned officer of the Royal Marines, underwater archeologists and others delving into the Franklin saga may be able to narrow them down to one of only four of the 129 men lost on the expedition.

"Those are the artifacts that are probably the most personal," says Ryan Harris, a senior underwater archeologist with Parks Canada.

The buttons went on display recently in Gatineau, Que., along with 14 other recently recovered artifacts, including a cannon and ceramic plates.

Together, they offer what Harris describes as a "tantalizing glimpse" into what the wreck discovered late last summer may ultimately reveal about the British expedition.

"At this point in time, we're absolutely just scratching the surface of what we might learn from this shipwreck," says Harris, who led a live-streamed video tour of the wreck during the five-day dive in mid-April.

Out of a storybook

The Parks Canada dive, which was done in conjunction with and support from the Canadian Forces' Joint Task Force (North) annual high Arctic sovereignty operation, was initially expected to be a 10-day operation.

But the project and its remote location were a logistical challenge from the outset, and weather and other factors meant the time was cut in half.

One of the HMS Erebus's cannons, recovered through a hole cut out of nearly two metres of Arctic sea ice, is hoisted up by the combined Parks Canada and Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic team. (Jonathan Moore/Parks Canada)

Still, Harris says he's "quite satisfied" with how much Parks Canada's underwater archeologists, who were paired with Royal Canadian Navy divers, were able to do.

Among the first tasks was removing the kelp that covered the wreck. Rather than strip it all away, as initially planned, they cut it off only along the port side of the 34-metre long reinforced wooden vessel.

"It's tedious, but all of a sudden you have a shipwreck that looks like a wreck site," says Harris, noting that it was "extremely gratifying to see the shape of the hull as it turns up. You really get a better sense of how big the site is" and how it towers five metres over the sea floor.

"It is so well preserved of course that it does sort of look like a storybook shipwreck."

Storybook, perhaps, but not telling many tales yet.

"We haven't identified what caused it to sink," Harris says. "Maybe on the starboard side we'll see some evidence of trauma."

Jonathan Moore using the ice drill for making the second dive hole at Erebus Dive Camp. (Parks Canada)

Harris says the artifacts recovered so far can help capture what life was like inside Erebus, as well as perhaps on the still-missing second ship of the Franklin expedition, HMS Terror.

Deck illuminators — or glass prisms — were set into the upper deck and, in the manner of a very small skylight, allowed daylight to pass through, into the dark spaces below.

"It looks like something out of Jules Verne," Harris says.

Peering inside the cabin

No human remains have been spotted, but archeologists have found Franklin's cabin, and seen that some materials from it have dropped down onto the sea floor.

Ceramic plates and tunic buttons recovered from the wreck of the HMS Erebus were on display as part of an exhibit earlier this month in Gatineau. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"We see that that cabin is still there," says Harris. "It's just largely crushed between the collapsed upper deck and the lower deck, but you can peer in through … these little spaces where we're inserting a point-of-view inspection camera."

Underwater archeologists also established a virtual site grid that will allow them to carefully record where artifacts are discovered.

Some of the discoveries during the dive didn't come as a complete surprise, including the ceramic plates, which were common on Royal Navy ships of the era.

"Certainly ship's officers had generally the luxury and the means of feathering their nest a little bit while at sea," says Harris.

The plates also came as no surprise to Simon Ekins, a great great nephew of Franklin.

"What is surprising is the quality of these artifacts, especially the ceramics, which, I suppose, to the Victorians at the time would be considered essential for their comfort during the long winters," Ekins said via email from his home in England.

Fingers crossed

Sylvia McClintock, a great-grandaughter of Leopold McClintock, the British Navy explorer, later admiral, who led the 1850s mission that found the most significant document to date — a letter from Franklin cached on King William Island —  says she's amazed the artifacts recovered are in such good condition.

She's also hoping that the sailors' log books will eventually be found and are still decipherable. They could answer a lot of lingering questions. "Let's cross our fingers and hope," she said in an email from England.

Parks Canada is evaluating whether another winter dive will take place early next year, and is planning for a return trip to the site this summer.

"The biggest complication this year really is that now we have to do two things at once," says Harris, noting that exploration of Erebus is expected to continue along with the search for HMS Terror, which may lie further north in the Victoria Strait.

The full scope of the exploration of the Erebus wreck is expected to evolve over time.

Harris notes that Parks Canada's work on the wreck of a 16th-century Basque whaling ship discovered in Red Bay, Labrador, extended over 14,000 hours and seven years, from 1978 to 1985. Tens of thousands of artifacts were recovered.

So far, with Erebus, there have been 87 hours of exploration and 15 artifacts recovered.