Frozen Terror at the Top of The World

In 1845, Sir John Franklin set out on an expedition to find the Northwest Passage through the Canadian arctic. He was not the first to try, but the mysterious disappearance of his ships and his crews made his voyage one of the most famous attempts. Franklin and all 129 men died in the expedition, and only a handful of the bodies were ever found.

Franklin’s ships were named the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. The Erebus was found in 2014, in one of the most exciting Canadian underwater archaeology finds. Then, just a few months ago, in September 2016, the Terror was also discovered*. The search for these ships, as well as the documentation, analysis, and presentation of the objects found aboard, represent a magnificent combination of modern digital technologies.


Sonar image of the HMS Erebus (Image by Parks Canada)

While stories and assistance from groups of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples helped significantly in the location of the shipwrecks, the final locations were uncovered through the use of sonar. SONAR stands for SOund Navigation And Ranging, and basically uses echo-location to find objects underwater.

This technology has helped to recover vessels that people have been searching for for over 100 years. This is not the end of the incredible ways that technology has assisted in this investigation, however.


3D printed replica bell in the Royal Ontario Museum. (Image by Matthew Sherwood for the National Post)

The objects found aboard these vessels were very difficult to move. While they are remarkably well preserved, due to the icy waters, once they are removed, oxygen and bacteria will immediately threaten to disintegrate these objects. So, one solution was to scan some of the objects, and then create 3D printed models to help investigate details. The bell of the ship was one object subjected to such aspects. First, the bell was actually scanned underwater, by an Artec Eva 3D Scanner and printed on a 3D Systems ProJet 660Pro. This has produced some remarkably detailed replicas of the bells. A number of these bells were given to museums across Canada, which has allowed more individuals to view and study these artifacts.

Laser scans of the ships themselves are also underway, to try and help archaeologists and conservators approach the question of whether and how the ships themselves should be moved.


Graves on Beechey Island (photo by Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod).

But that’s not all! Further investigations of the few human remains from this voyage promise to reveal even more information. A few graves belonging to this voyage are known to exist – 3 were found on Beechey Island, in Canada’s Arctic (a fourth was added from a later voyage). Initial analysis of the human remains suggested that the crew may have died of lead poisoning.


micro-XRF heat map of the elements found in John Hartnell’s toenail. (Image from Christiansen et al. 2016)

A very recent analysis of a thumbnail and toenail of one of these men, John Hartnell, has shown that lead poisoning is unlikely to be the reason for his demise. The toenail was analyzed “using synchrotron micro-X-ray fluorescence (microXRF) mapping combined with stable isotope analysis and laser-ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS)” (Christiansen et al. 2016). The results suggest that the lead content was not any higher than might otherwise be predicted in men of his age in the 1800s; on the other hand, high levels of Zinc may have contributed to a weakening immune system, leaving the individual susceptible to pneumonia and tuberculosis, the diseases that ultimately killed him.

The combination of the new technologies used for this group of discoveries have allowed the scholars involved to find these lost ships, analyze weak materials without damaging objects, share a coveted history with a fascinated public, and help to uncover the cause of death of 129 men. This project demonstrates just how much digital archaeology can help to reveal about the past.

*I should note that final confirmation that the ship discovered in September really was the Terror has not come through, but it is very, very likely. See this CBC news video for more information.


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