As Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted, “one of Canada’s greatest mysteries” was solved earlier this month when one of two missing ships from Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition was located.
There are, however, still many unanswered questions about the find, including what happens next. This year’s search for the Franklin ships has ended, but Parks Canada hasn’t yet revealed which ship was found — it’s either the HMS Terror or HMS Erebus — where it’s located or any information gleaned from dives members of its Underwater Archaeology Service have made on the wreck.
“I don’t blame Parks Canada and the Canadian government for keeping the exact location a secret,” says Ian MacLaren, a professor of history and classics at the University of Alberta who has extensively studied Arctic history. “A measure of prudence is probably well advised.”
Russell Potter, a professor of English and media studies at Rhode Island College who runs a website dedicated to the Franklin expedition, agrees, noting that while the wreck site would be hard to reach undetected, care still needs to be taken to keep people from trying to retrieve artifacts from the site and doing damage to the ship, which was declared a national historic site in 1992. Official recognition of the historic site refers to a 200-metre-radius circle centred on the midpoint of the ship’s hull, although according to Parks Canada, the designated place is to be held in abeyance until the ships are found.
MacLaren says that what happens next depends on who you are. A historian with Britain’s Royal Navy, for instance, may be interested in examining the structural condition of the hull, while an archeologist might be more concerned with recovering human remains. “I’m curious to learn before too many years pass whether there were any papers left on board the ship,” he says. “If they can be brought up to the surface and dried out, and if the ink survived, their contents can be examined.”
Potter believes if any documents do exist on board, they should have survived fairly well, noting that numerous books and papers were rescued from the Titanic. “Even if we could find some legible dates on a document, that would be tremendously helpful.”
Potter also hopes nearby sites, such as the islets near Booth Point on King William Island, will finally get attention. “There are definitely human remains there that have never been given a proper archeological look.”
MacLaren wonders where any remains, artifacts or documents that are recovered from the ship will be kept. A 1997 agreement between Canada and Britain gives Canada control over the investigation and recovery of the artifacts, which Canada would own. Britain, however, would still own the ships. Meanwhile, an agreement between Ottawa and Nunavut ensures Nunavut has a say in whether remains or relics are raised, and if so, what happens to them.
Potter doesn’t think the wreck will be raised, and doesn’t recommend doing so. “Not only would it be extraordinarily expensive, but it would probably be unwise,” he says, adding that it would be nearly impossible to lift the wreck in one piece without disturbing any artifacts or human remains in the area.