Archeologists peer inside Franklin ship Terror

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More than 170 years after the Franklin ship HMS Terror’s fate was sealed at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, archeologists have finally taken a look inside the sunken vessel.

Plates and other artifacts on shelves next to a dinner table where a group of lower-ranking crew members would have taken their meals aboard the Franklin ship HMS Terror.
photo courtesy of Parks Canada

A remotely-operated underwater vehicle entered the ship several times earlier this month, revealing an “astonishing” number of well-preserved artifacts in the cold waters of Terror Bay, off the coast of King William Island.

The researchers saw glass bottles, silverware, dinner plates, desks, cabinets, chests, scientific instruments and a surveyor’s tripod, among other objects.

“In every single cabin and compartment, there are things to see. It was sort of one discovery after the next,” said Ryan Harris, Parks Canada’s lead archeologist and project director, who added that high-definition footage was shot of approximately 90 per cent of the ship’s lower deck from Aug. 9-15.

The only closed door that the underwater device encountered was to Capt. Francis Crozier’s bedchamber.

“The wreck offers an astounding opportunity to enter into the lives of the sailors on board,” said Harris, who noted that no human remains were detected on the historic vessel.

A bunk, drawers and shelf in a cabin on the lower deck of the Franklin ship HMS Terror. Images and footage were taken by Parks Canada’s remote operated vehicle, which is about the size of a basketball. photo courtesy of Parks Canada

Archeologists estimate that thousands of artifacts – jointly owned by Inuit and the Government of Canada – exist at the site of the Terror and its sister ship, HMS Erebus.

“We’re very, very enthusiastic about what we stand to find in the future,” Harris said.

There was no plan to retrieve any artifacts from the Terror this season. However, Parks Canada’s dive crew has moved on to the Erebus and they’re aiming to bring some of the items from that ship to the surface until mid-September.

Bottles and other artifacts on a shelf in a cabin on Terror’s lower deck, as seen last week through a Parks Canada and Kitikmeot Inuit archeological expedition. photo courtesy of Parks Canada

A brown bottle was one of the first objects fetched from Erebus on Aug. 26. It will be sent to an Ottawa laboratory for analysis, along with other retrieved artifacts. Select items from the Erebus will be taken to Gjoa Haven and temporarily put on display for residents at the conclusion of this summer’s exploration.

Archeological assistant Jonathan Puqiqnak, who hails from Gjoa Haven, is getting a sneak peek at the artifacts as he’s joined the dive crew aboard the research vessel RV David Thompson.

“It’s new for me, a new experience,” said Puqiqnak, who’s had an interest in archeology since being introduced to the subject during his school years.

He’s spending his days maintaining the divers’ tanks and compressors, coordinating between the boat and barge and cleaning the retrieved artifacts. There’s been talk of Puqiqnak, who has worked with the Inuit Guardians during the past two summers, trying some dive training in the future.

Plates, bottles and other artifacts rest on shelves next to a mess table where a group of lower-ranking crew members would have taken their meals aboard Franklin ship HMS Terror. photo courtesy of Parks Canada

Parks Canada has described the exploration of the Franklin ships as the “largest, most complex underwater archeological undertaking in Canadian history.”

All 129 Franklin crew members ultimately perished after the Erebus and Terror became lodged in Arctic ice in 1846. The trapped ships eventually sank while attempting to traverse the Northwest Passage on behalf of Britain, under the guidance of explorer Sir John Franklin.

Franklin ship artifacts will be displayed at the Nattilik Heritage Centre in Gjoa Haven in the years to come. Upon the conclusion of the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement with Parks Canada, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association will take the lead on expanding the heritage centre. Work on that project is expected to begin “in earnest” in early 2020, said Jason Bouzanis, Parks Canada’s national director of communications.

Bouzanis added that the budget for this year’s underwater expedition won’t be tabulated until all the work is complete.

A storage compartment in Captain Francis Crozier’s cabin, partly covered by silt and marine life, with one of the cabin’s stern gallery windows clearly visible in the background. photo courtesy of Parks Canada