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Franklin’s Last Voyage

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

July/August 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



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