From a shallow Arctic gulf, a treasure trove of objects from the HMS Erebus shipwreck has been brought to the surface for the first time in more than 170 years. The items could offer new clues about the doomed Franklin expedition, which left England in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage. All 129 people perished from still-uncertain causes—a mystery that was fictionalized in the AMC series The Terror in 2018.
Marc-André Bernier, head of underwater archaeology at Parks Canada, said in a teleconference from Ottawa that this year’s research season was the most successful since the discovery of the HMS Erebus shipwreck in 2014. Parks Canada divers and Inuit located the HMS Terror, the second ship of the Franklin expedition, in 2016.
From mid-August to mid-September, 2019, the Parks Canada and Inuit research team began systematically excavating the large and complex shipwreck. “We focused on areas that had not been disturbed since the ship had sunk,” Bernier said. “Right now, our focus is the cabins of the officers, and we’re working our way toward the higher officers. That’s where we think we have a better chance of finding more clues to what happened to the expedition, which is one of the major objectives.”
Over a total of 93 dives this year, archaeologists concentrated on three crew members’ cabins on the port side amidships: one belonging to the third lieutenant, one for the steward, and one likely for the ice master. In drawers underneath the third lieutenant’s bed, they discovered a tin box with a pair of the officer’s epaulets in “pristine condition,” Bernier said. They may have belonged to James Walter Fairholme, one of the three lieutenants on the Erebus.
In the steward’s pantry, where items used to serve the captain were stored, divers carefully brushed away sediment to reveal dozens of plates, bowls, dish warmers, strainers, and more— about 50 serving pieces total. Bernier said some of the most exciting finds were personal objects that could be linked to individuals, such as a lead stamp with the inscription “Ed. Hoar,” for Edmund Hoar, the 23-year-old captain’s steward. They also found a piece of red sealing wax with a fingerprint of its last user.
Other intriguing items brought to the surface include a glass decanter, found in the officers’ mess area on the lower deck, which may have held brandy or port; a high-quality hairbrush with a few human hairs still in the bristles; and a cedar-wood pencil case. All of the artifacts are jointly owned by the Government of Canada and Inuit.
The extensive recovery was made possible by a new research barge, which was moored over the shipwreck and provided hyperbaric chambers and hot-water suits. While wearing the suits, divers were able to stay in the frigid waters for about 90 minutes at a time; they spent over 100 hours examining the wreck this year.
The HMS Erebus’s size and excellent state of preservation mean there’s much more to discover, Bernier said. The Erebus is 108 feet long, and though the upper deck has collapsed, there are 20 cabins on the main deck. They’ve examined only three so far. “There are tens of thousands of artifacts still there,” Bernier tells Mental Floss. “We’re going to be very focused and save what needs to be saved, and go to places [in the wreck] where there are good chances of finding the most information that is valuable for the site.”
As with the findings from previous research seasons, many questions about the shocking demise of the Franklin expedition remain unanswered. How and when did the HMS Erebus sink after both ships were abandoned in spring 1848, having been trapped in ice since September 1846? Which officers and crew were among the 24 men who had died by that time, and why so many?
Bernier tells Mental Floss there’s even a new mystery to solve. Near Edmund Hoar’s items, divers found another artifact that also bore the name of a crew member—mate Frederick Hornby. “Originally, when the ships set sail, he was not on Erebus, he was on Terror,” Bernier says. “So this object jumped ship at one point. How did that happen? Was Hornby transferred to Erebus; did they abandon one ship and put everybody on the other one? Was it something somebody recovered after he died? Was it given to somebody? With one object, we can start to see [new] questions. Hopefully, by piecing all of this together, we can actually start pushing the narrative of the story in some interesting direction.”