The Story of the Greatest Polar Archaeological Discovery Ever

After 17 decades, the HMS Erebus has finally been found — and with it, hopefully, the answers to who truly located the Northwest Passage.

Henry Phillips

Editor’s Note: The HMS Terror, the second ship from the doomed polar expedition described by John Geiger in this interview, was finally located on September 3. The ship was found not far from its sister vessel, the HMS Erebus — in the same bay, in fact. The Terror, which sits roughly 80 feet down, is remarkably well preserved and could hold answers to what happened to John Franklin’s expedition. The discovery was made by the Arctic Research Foundation, who piloted an unmanned ROV through a hole in the ship’s hull to identify the wreck.

In September 2014, Parks Canada, working with partners including the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, located what John Geiger, CEO of the RCGS, calls “the most important polar archaeological discovery that has ever been made.” Said discovery is the relocation of one of Sir John Franklin’s Royal Navy vessels that used to search for the Northwest Passage, the HMS Erebus.

For over 17 decades, the Erebus was missing, lost at sea, holding the secrets to what became of Franklin and his men. There were no survivors from the expedition, and artifacts on Franklin’s ship could shed light on whether the group successfully located the Northwest Passage. We caught up with Geiger at New York’s Explorer’s Club to discuss the discovery, what’s next for exploration and what will happen to the artifacts recovered from Erebus.

Q. How did you first get into exploration?

JG. I’ve never called myself an explorer, but I have been on a number of expeditions. Starting in my twenties I was involved in a series of arctic expeditions. Owen [Beattie] was undertaking research into a lost English expedition that disappeared in the Hudson Bay in 1719 — the James Knight expedition. We were on a place called Marble Island, a very sort of desolate outcrop off of Rankin Inlet to the northwest coast of Hudson Bay. The landscape is very unusual. The island looks like it is made of white quartzite. The coastline around it is all darker earth tones and then there is this island that is white, so in the distance it appears like this ice floe. Marble Island is the place where the James Knight expedition ended in disaster in 1719. Twenty-nine men died, two ships were lost. It is sort of the first great polar mystery, really. The disappearance of Knight’s expedition was also kind of the first polar tragedy. The fact that nobody survived to tell what became of them makes it even more interesting. There are these enduring questions about what happened to them — “why did they all die?” The commanding officer Knight, Captain James Knight, was the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He had lived for years in the arctic, in arctic conditions. He founded Churchill Manitoba — the great polar bear center — he was the one the founded a fort there. So a very interesting guy, he knew what you had to do to survive in polar and sub-polar conditions — and yet they all died, including Knight himself.

So it is a great mystery — it’s not well known but it’s an amazing story. So it caught my attention and that of Owen. I spent three field seasons there battling plagues of mosquitos and the occasional polar bear. The weather which lurches from quite beautiful with the warm temperatures, to cold, plus five Celsius with sleet. So really a remarkable place. I spent three years doing that in the summers. So I have been involved in field science and I have always been very interested in the whole realm of exploration — particularly as it pertains to polar regions.

Q. What happened to the HMS Erebus?

JG. In 1845, Franklin sets out with 129 men and two ships, Erebus and Terror — these are both Royal Navy vessels specifically designed for polar exploration. They had been involved in research in Antarctica previously. So they were very robust, ice-reinforced vessels. They also had new technology in them. Both ships had locomotive engines, so that they weren’t entirely dependent on wind. If they were trapped in ice and they had a break in the ice, they were able to start up these coal-fired engines and putter out of it.

Franklin himself was a very experienced arctic explorer. He had already made two overland expeditions across the barrens of Northern Canada and had mapped a large portion of the arctic coastline of North America. So he had significant experience, but had not commanded a naval expedition into any polar region. He was chosen after James Clark Ross, a more experienced naval commander in polar expeditions, declined. So Franklin, in 1845, was given command and they sailed off. They stopped in Greenland; letters were sent home to relatives saying how great Franklin was: “He was a very popular commander,” “great optimism for success,” “they were going to get through the passage very quickly.” They had three years’ worth of food with them — including new food technologies like tins. So really, the sense was that they were going to have an easy success.

A side-scan sonar image of the HMS Erebus.

They entered the so-called Northwest Passage into Lancaster Sound and they were last seen in Baffin Bay by some whaling vessels. They obviously were later seen by Inuit in the arctic setting. And the ships vanished. They didn’t come out of the arctic as anticipated. A year went by, two years went by. Finally Lady Franklin began to raise questions. She used her political connections, her social connections, to try to understand what had happened to the expedition — why they had disappeared. It essentially took more than a decade of searching to understand what became of the expedition. It was not an easy solve.

What was finally decided was, based on research and historical analysis of them, was that the expedition had successfully over-wintered their first year there [in the arctic]. There had been three deaths, which was a little unusual — a little high in terms of mortality, but they successfully over-wintered at a place called Beechey Island. They then set sail and probed further, deeper into the arctic. The ships were beset in ice off the northwest coast of King William Island and as a result of that they got trapped. The ice didn’t clear so they remained trapped. So after essentially two years of being locked in this ice, with an ever-increasing number of deaths on the expedition, including John Franklin himself who died aboard ship in 1847, the decision was made to abandon the ships. The crew left the ships and attempted to walk out of the Arctic. They walked south, which is a mystery to many historians. As a result of going south, they had to cross the Barren to a Hudson’s Bay Company post a couple of hundred miles away. The more logical escape route would have been Northeast to Somerset Island, where the first searchers went looking for them. They were reported by the Inuit to literally have dropped dead as they walked along.

Over the years we have been able to put together a pretty good picture of what was happening, and it was a mass disaster that was played out over a fairly lengthy period of time — with deaths aboard ship and deaths when they abandoned the ship, and cannibalism among the last surviving members of the expedition. Really a horrific story.

The greatest mystery of all has been: where are the ships? How do two royal navy exploration ships simply vanish? And literally in 17 decades there was no evidence of these ships. There were accounts, that one ship had been damaged, and sunk quickly off the west coast of King William Island. A second account of one of the ships farther to the south was actually visited by the Inuit and there were reports of Franklin and crew being alive on that ship. These accounts were reported by the Inuit and collected and recorded by researchers. But 17 decades associated with the two most significant artifacts — two ships with whatever is aboard those ships.

Q. What is the importance of this discovery?

JG. I think this is the most important polar archaeological discovery that has ever been made. Certainly in terms of the vessels themselves. In terms of maritime wrecks, it is hard to conceive of anything more important than locating these two ships. If you look at a ship like the Endurance, Shackleton’s ship, obviously it would be very exciting to locate the wreck of the Endurance. That would be fun, that would be interesting — but really what are we going to learn? We know what happened. We know that they all survived. We have Shackleton’s published accounts. We have photographic documentation of what happened, by Hurley. So what do we learn from the location of the Endurance? Not a lot. Ditto so many other wrecks that have been found.

In the case of Erebus and Terror, nobody survived. We didn’t have the ships, we didn’t have the human survivors. Many of the men remain missing. Franklin himself is missing. Logs are missing. There is this great dearth of information. The significance of the discovery of the ship is so enormous because there are so many unanswered questions. There may be human remains on the ship, and it’s Franklin’s ship, so his own possessions will be there. It’s possible even, some historians believe, that Franklin’s remains will be on the ship — so it is a great importance in terms of understanding the Franklin disaster.

It also comes at a time when the whole world is fixated on the arctic because of the effects of climate on that landscape. The fact that now you are looking at the possibility that the Northwest Passage could be a commercial trading route, so it really is a significant time.

Q. What happens to the artifacts that are recovered from Erebus?

JG. The first divers that have gone down are describing lots of cultural material present on the ship. From their descriptions, it seems like the ship sank and much of what was on it when the men died is still on it. Under an agreement with the government of Great Britain, which still owns Erebus, and the Canadian government, the government of Canada is responsible for the protection and conservation of the ship and artifacts. So the things that are being retrieved (they’ve already retrieved the bell, the signal cannons and a scabbard) are being taken to Ottawa, where Parks Canada maintains a conservation laboratory.

Q. From my understanding, even with sonar and modern technologies, the ship was still very hard to find. Why was that?

JG. It’s been described as basically a needle in a haystack. There’s a lot of unexplored seabed in the arctic. All of Canada has now been mapped, but not all of the underwater part of Canada. It’s a vast area, and it’s also a very difficult area to operate in. With ice conditions, it’s a very small window in which to operate. Getting the technology up there, getting the supplies up there, getting the ships all up there — it’s just difficult logistically. It’s a very challenging environment to operate in.

Like in all explorations, sometimes it is just luck that makes the difference between success and failure. And in this case it was luck. It was because the team was looking in the right place. It was because they were doing terrestrial archaeology as well as underwater archaeology.

Q. With modern technology, are unknowns dwindling? Or is it leading to the discovery of more unknowns?

JG. I think the process of exploration is speeding up, and more and more things are being found. It took 17 decades to find one of Franklin’s ships. My prediction is that Terror will be found in the next couple of years. There are other missing ships up there, and they will all be found. The technology has obviously made it so much easier to operate. Even 30 years ago, it would have been virtually impossible to find these ships. Now the technology exists to undertake this work, so I think we’re going to gradually be solving these historical mysteries in the arctic — but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. We’re living in a golden era of exploration because of technology. We can now create incredible maps of the seabeds. We can actually look down there, and we can do it remotely, so it’s really quite spectacular. There is still a lot to be found. The oceans especially, are very rich territory.

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