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Franklin’s Last Voyage

After 170 years and countless searches, archaeologists have discovered a famed wreck in the frigid Arctic


Monday, June 27, 2016

Erebus underwater opener


Aboard the Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a team of marine and terrestrial archaeologists, hydrographers, the ship’s captain, and a helicopter pilot gathered to finalize the day’s plan. It was September 1, 2014, and they were in the waters of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, searching the west coast of King William Island and the eastern part of Queen Maud Gulf—some 540 square miles of sea. The team, led by Ryan Harris, a senior underwater archaeologist with Parks Canada, had been looking since 2008 for signs of perhaps the two most famous ships lost in the search for the Northwest Passage: the reinforced British bomb vessels HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, led by Sir John Franklin and missing since the late 1840s.


Scott Youngblut, a Canadian government hydrographer, was heading out from Laurier on a helicopter to a small, uninhabited island off the western edge of Nunavut’s Adelaide Peninsula to set up a GPS station that would help him chart the local waters. The area being searched is near where, in the nineteenth century, an Inuit elder had reported rummaging through an abandoned ship. Alongside Youngblut were Doug Stenton, Nunavut’s director of heritage, and Robert Park, an archaeological anthropologist from the University of Waterloo, who had come along to survey the island. Before landing, Stenton noted two promising signs: the absence of polar bears, and the presence of what appeared to be clear cultural features, including tent rings and small stone mounds indicative of supply caches. After just 20 minutes on the ground, helicopter pilot Andrew Stirling called Stenton over. Before them was a 17-inch, U-shaped iron fitting partially embedded in sand.


Erebus sonarErebus underwaterStenton was intrigued by the find. It was different and more substantial than other items thought to have come from Franklin’s ships, such as nails and spikes. Those artifacts had been discovered on or around King William Island, to the northeast. Stenton picked up the 12-pound piece of iron to look for the telltale broad arrow that would identify it as property of the British Royal Navy, which had commissioned and outfitted Franklin’s expedition. “When I opened my hand I saw the number 12—and a broad arrow—stamped into the bottom,” Stenton recalls.


That evening on Laurier, Stenton, Harris, and the Parks Canada crew examined the find, as well as two wooden disks they had discovered. Because of the iron fitting’s size, they guessed it had come from Erebus or Terror, and not from one of the smaller boats Franklin’s crew is known to have used after their ships had become icebound. Harris concluded that the iron was most likely part of a boat-launching mechanism called a davit pintle, and that the disks were possibly plugs for a deck hawse, an opening through which a ship’s anchor chain passes into a storage space below the deck.


Remains of an Arctic Shipwreck

Rites of the Scythians

Spectacular new discoveries from the Caucasus set the stage for a dramatic hilltop ritual


Monday, June 13, 2016

Russia Scythian Golden Bowl Griffins Attack Stags


Russian archaeologist Andrey Belinski wasn’t sure what to expect when he found himself facing a small mound in a farmer’s field at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. To the untrained eye, the 12-foot feature looked like little more than a hillock. To Belinski, who was charged with excavating the area to make way for new power lines, it looked like a type of ancient burial mound called a kurgan. He considered the job of excavating and analyzing the kurgan, which might be damaged by the construction work, fairly routine. “Basically, we planned to dig so we could understand how it was built,” Belinski says. As he and his team began to slice into the mound, located 30 miles east of Stavropol, it became apparent that they weren’t the first people to take an interest. In fact, looters had long ago ravaged some sections. “The central part was destroyed, probably in the nineteenth century,” Belinski says. Hopes of finding a burial chamber or artifacts inside began to fade.


It took nearly a month of digging to reach the bottom. There, Belinski ran into a layer of thick clay that, at first glance, looked like a natural feature of the landscape, not the result of human activity. He uncovered a stone box, a foot or so deep, containing a few finger and rib bones from a teenager. But that wasn’t all. Nested one inside the other in the box were two gold vessels of unsurpassed workmanship. Beneath these lay three gold armbands, a heavy ring, and three smaller bell-shaped gold cups. “It was a huge surprise for us,” Belinski says. “Somehow, the people who plundered the rest didn’t locate these artifacts.”

 Scythians Sengileevskoe Gold Armbands

As he continued to excavate the area surrounding the kurgan, he spotted postholes near the stone box, as though tree trunks had once been sunk in the earth to support a pavilion or roof. Belinski and Anton Gass of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, whom Belinski had invited to participate in the excavation, realized that they had found something far beyond a simple burial mound. In fact, some scholars think the site may have been the location of an intense ritual and subsequent burial rite performed by some of the ancient world’s most fearsome warriors.


From about 900 to 100 B.C., nomadic tribes dominated the steppes and grasslands of Eurasia, from what is today western China all the way east to the Danube. All across this vast expanse, archaeological evidence shows that people shared core cultural practices. “They were all nomads, they were heavily socially stratified, they had monumental burial structures and rich grave goods,” says Hermann Parzinger, head of Berlin’s Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and former head of the German Archaeological Institute. Today, archaeologists refer to the members of this interconnected world as Scythians, a name used by the Greek historian Herodotus.



Scythian Slideshow Preview
Inside a Scythian Burial Mound