Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Remains of an Arctic Shipwreck

In 1845, Sir John Franklin led a doomed two-ship expedition to navigate the long-sought Northwest Passage through the treacherous seas that connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. For the last 170 years, dozens of expeditions have fruitlessly searched for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—until 2014, when archaeologists from Parks Canada finally discovered the wreck of Erebus, near where Inuit accounts from the late 19th century reported a vessel trapped in ice. Here are some of the artifacts that have been retrieved from the ship so far. To read an in-depth article on the discovery, go to "Franklin's Last Voyage."

  • In spring 2015, following the discovery of Erebus the previous fall, divers and technicians from Parks Canada and the Canadian military raised a cannon from the ship through a hole cut through six feet of ice with a hot water drill. This cannon was designed to fire a six-pound projectile, was listed among the three carried by the ship, and preserves a number of markings, including the maker’s mark “I&H King – 1812” and a large crest that stands for Henry Phipps, First Earl of Mulgrave, Master General of the Ordnance. (Parks Canada)
  • So far archaeologists have focused on assessing the state of the wreck, cleaning off kelp, and retrieving certain artifacts that are clearly exposed. This view of the lower deck of Erebus, near the sailor’s quarters, shows several objects that have been raised, including a belt buckle, a white ceramic ointment pot, and a concretion of percussion caps (adjacent to the pot). Ceramic pots like this one could have held shaving cream, shoe polish, or condiments—lab tests of the clay-like substance inside may reveal what this one contained. (Parks Canada)
  • On the lower deck of Erebus, archaeologists from Parks Canada recovered several ceramic plates, all British-made in the style of more expensive Chinese porcelain. This one’s blue willow pattern was the most common and affordable print used in Europe and North America in the 19th century. Researchers believe that they might have been stored in a cupboard next to the ship’s galley. The presence of the plates confirms Inuit accounts from the late 19th century, which reported a deserted ship trapped in ice containing “spoons, knives, forks, tin plates, and china plates.” (Parks Canada)
  • Among the artifacts recovered are a number of pieces of Erebus’ equipment and rigging, including fragments of the ship’s wheel, illuminators that allowed light into the lower decks, and rigging blocks and belaying pins to handle the masses of hemp ropes on such sailing vessels. This solid copper-alloy hook block, marked with several British broad arrows and “6 1/4” referring to its size, may have been used to lower one of the ship’s smaller boats or formed parts of its standard rigging. (Parks Canada)
  • On the forward port side of Erebus, archaeologists found a number of artifacts, including a sword hilt and uniform buttons, that would have been issued to members of the British Royal Navy and Royal Marines. This shoulder belt plate, made of copper alloy and probably once gilded, had been issued to one of the 13 Royal Marines from the Woolwich Division that sailed on the expedition. (Parks Canada)