Stunning artifacts have been recovered from the wreck of HMS Erebus, one of two 19th-century Royal Navy ships involved in a doomed expedition to locate the Northwest Passage.
Officials in Canada unveiled the items, which include epaulets from a lieutenant’s uniform, ceramic dishes, a hairbrush, and a pencil case, this week. Sealing wax, bearing a fingerprint, that is believed to belong to Edmund Hoar, the captain’s steward, was also found.
HMS Erebus and her sister ship HMS Terror took part in an expedition led by Sir John Franklin to find the long-sought sea route. Both ships’ crews perished in the mission and the ships’ final resting places remained a mystery for over 160 years.
Parks Canada and the Inuit Heritage Trust unveiled the new artifacts on Thursday.
“The findings from HMS Erebus during the 2019 Franklin research mission will contribute to a better understanding of historical and Inuit accounts of the Franklin Expedition and help establish a clearer picture of the living quarters of the crew on the lower deck of the ship,” said Parks Canada in a statement.
The items were recovered from HMS Erebus during 93 dives that took place over a three-week period in fall 2019, according to Parks Canada. Divers spent approximately 110 hours underwater.
“The recovered artifacts are currently undergoing preliminary analysis – a process that includes identifying the physical characteristics of each object as well as scaled illustrations, x-rays and studio photography – at Parks Canada’s Conservation Laboratories,” explained Parks Canada in a statement.
The wreck of the Erebus was finally located in 2014, amid much fanfare, and the Terror was found two years later. The ships, which were among the most sought-after prizes in marine archaeology, are the subject of multiple songs, poems and novels. The wrecks have even sparked talk of a modern “curse.”
Last year Canadian officials released remarkable, never-before-seen images and video footage of the HMS Terror wreck. The images were captured during what is described as the largest and most complex underwater archaeology project in the country’s history. Using an undersea drone, researchers explored the remarkably well-preserved interior of the HMS Terror.
What happened to most of the ships’ crew members, however, is still unknown. Franklin and 128 handpicked officers and men had set out in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, the shortcut to Asia that supposedly ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific by way of the harsh, ice-choked Arctic.
Experts believe that the ships were lost in 1848 after they became locked in the ice near King William Island and that the crews abandoned them in a hopeless bid to reach safety. Inuit lore tells of “white men who were starving” as late as the winter of 1850 on Royal Geographical Society Island in the north Canadian territory of Nunavut.
The fate of the sailors and Royal Marines on the Franklin expedition continues to captivate historians.
The ships’ crews all perished in the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic and the bodies of most of the expedition members have never been recovered. However, a handful of graves have been found and the remains examined.
One theory suggests that lead poisoning from shoddily canned food and the ships’ water filtration system helped doom the expedition. However, research published last year in the journal Plos One challenges this notion. After analyzing bone and dental remains of crew members and comparing them to samples from a Royal Navy cemetery in the Caribbean, the researchers concluded that many of the crew were likely victims of starvation.
The local community treats the wreck sites with great reverence.
“An Inuit Guardians program, involving Inuit from Gjoa Haven, has been in place since 2017 and leads the protection and monitoring of the Franklin wrecks during the open-water season, in addition to helping integrate Inuit knowledge into Parks Canada’s operations,” said Parks Canada in its statement released this week.
Both wrecks have been designated as historic sites by the Canadian government and a Parks Canada permit is required to access them.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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