Divers recover HMS Erebus sailors’ possessions

Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Marc-André Bernier carefully excavate a seamen’s chest in the forecastle on the lower deck (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)
Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Marc-André Bernier carefully excavates a seamen’s chest in the forecastle on the lower deck (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)

An array of “fascinating” 19th-century naval artefacts along with thousands of high-resolution images have been collected during a 12-day expedition to dive Sir John Franklin’s expedition ship HMS Erebus, which was lost in the Canadian Arctic in 1848. 

Parks Canada has now issued a report on the September 2023 seasonal research trip, during which its underwater archaeologists carried out 68 dives in the Wrecks of HMS Erebus & HMS Terror National Historic Site in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, continuing their long-term investigation and documentation of the historic shipwreck.

The expedition was carried out from the research vessel David Thompson, with diving from the excavation support barge Qiniqtiryuaq.

Preparation work aboard Parks Canada’s diving and excavation support barge Qiniqtiryuaq (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)
Preparatory work on the diving and excavation support barge Qiniqtiryuaq (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)
Parks Canada underwater archaeology technician Todd Stakenvicius returns to the diving and excavation support barge Qiniqtiryuaq. The David Thompson is in the background (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)
Parks Canada underwater archaeology technician Todd Stakenvicius returns to the Qiniqtiryuaq from a dive. The David Thompson is in the background (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)
Parks Canada underwater archaeology technician Joe Boucher examines one of Erebus’s ice anchors, discovered in 2023 in the debris field (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)
Parks Canada underwater archaeology technician Joe Boucher examines one of Erebus’s ice anchors, discovered in the debris field in 2023 (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)

HMS Erebus under Commander James Fitzjames had been part of Franklin’s Arctic exploration mission to traverse the last un-navigated sections of the North-west Passage. Both Erebus and Terror became ice-bound in Victoria Strait near King William Island and were abandoned after more than a year in April 1848, by which time two dozen men including Franklin had died.

The survivors, led by Franklin’s second-in-command Francis Crozier and Fitzjames, set out for the mainland but vanished. The expedition’s fate remained a mystery until the discovery by Canadian archaeologists in 2014 of the Erebus wreck, at a depth of 11m in Queen Maud Gulf. The wreck of HMS Terror was discovered at a maximum depth of 24m two years later.

HMS Erebus & HMS Terror, painted by John Wilson Carmichael
HMS Erebus & HMS Terror, painted by John Wilson Carmichael in 1847 (National Maritime Museum)

Searching the accommodation

In their bid to learn more about the naval technology and scientific work of the time, as well as what life was like on the vessel, the divers on the 2023 expedition found a number of items in the cabin of an officer, believed to be 2nd Lt Henry Dundas Le Vesconte. These included a parallel rule for navigation, an intact thermometer, a leather book-cover and a fishing-rod with a brass reel.

Fishing reel recovered from a cabin on the lower deck of HMS Erebus (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)
Fishing reel recovered from a cabin on the lower deck of HMS Erebus (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)

Other items including the leather sole of a shoe or boot, storage jars and a sealed pharmaceutical bottle were found in an area believed to be the captain’s steward’s pantry. Excavation also continued in a cabin believed to be that of 3rd Lt James Fairholme, where discovery of a collection of unidentified fossils supplemented similar fossils found the previous year.

The dive-team also began excavating a large seamen’s chest in the forecastle area, where most of the crew lived. It was found to contain pistols and other military items, footwear, medicine bottles and coins.

Royal Navy pistol recovered from a seamen’s chest (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)
Royal Navy pistol recovered from a seamen’s chest (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)
Parks Canada underwater archaeology technician Joe Boucher documents one of HMS Erebus’s propellers in the debris field (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)
Joe Boucher documents one of HMS Erebus’s propellers in the debris field (Brett Seymour / Parks Canada)

All the recovered artefacts are being conserved and studied in the Canadian capital Ottawa, with many then set to be put on display at the Nattilik Heritage Centre in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.

Parks Canada held an event after the dives to share some of the discoveries with the community. It co-manages the park with the Nattilik Heritage Society, and their Wrecks Guardian programme includes active site surveillance and archaeological research.

3D models

Meanwhile the thousands of digital photographs taken on the latest expedition will be used to produce 3D models of the wreck, designed to help the archaeologists to determine how it is changing over time.

During the trip the researchers paid a brief visit to the HMS Terror wreck-site to conduct remote sensing recording, using a multi-beam echo-sounder and sub-bottom profiler to monitor the wreck’s condition as well as widening mapping of the mostly uncharted bay in which the wreck lies.

A side-scan sonar image of HMS Terror shows the bowsprit, masts and helm. (Picture: Parks Canada)
An earlier side-scan sonar image of HMS Terror shows the bowsprit, masts and helm (Parks Canada)

“The Franklin expedition remains one of the most popular mysteries from the 19th century,” commented Canadian environment minister Steven Guilbeault. “However, thanks to the important work of Parks Canada and Inuit partners, pieces of this mysterious puzzle are being retrieved, allowing us to better understand the fascinating events of this incredible expedition.”

The UK gifted the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror wrecks to Canada in 2018, but this year Parks Canada will transfer a representative sample of the Erebus artefacts, including a ship's bell and a cannon, to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

Also on Divernet: 275 artefacts recovered from Erebus shipwreck, Inside HMS Terror 170 years on, Divers return to famed Arctic wrecks, More artefacts recovered from HMS Erebus, HMS Terror find could solve 170-year Arctic mystery

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