Lost and found

Arctic research helps crack Canada's coldest case

For almost 170 years, searchers have been finding poignant remnants of Sir John Franklin’s lost crew strewn across Canada’s Arctic. Robert Park, a professor of anthropology in Waterloo’s Faculty of Arts, has spent years trekking the tundra, helping to find hundreds of Franklin objects, including buttons, buckshot and bones.

But no trace had been found of the two British ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, that carried Franklin and his 128 crew members on an 1845 search for the Northwest Passage. That changed last September.

Despite the deployment of high-tech solutions to solve the mystery of the lost ships, it was good old-fashioned fieldwork — including Park’s expertise as an archeological anthropologist — that helped crack Canada’s coldest case. 

Park was helping Government of Nunavut Director of Heritage Douglas Stenton, who has led the land-based part of the research since the renewed search for the ships started in 2008. The 2014 field season involved a massive team made up of government scientists and private and non-profit partners.

Robert Park

Robert Park, a professor of anthropology in Waterloo's Faculty of Arts, has spent many summers unearthing Arctic history.

Up until last year, one might have thought that the high-tech world of the team’s underwater archeologists would have detected the first bit of evidence pointing to the shipwrecks’ watery graves. The underwater search for the Franklin ships is a James Bond-world of unmanned submarines equipped with floodlights and cameras; sonar developed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and electronic devices lowered to the frigid depths of Arctic waters where no human diver could survive. 

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But in the end, it was Park and Stenton, two land-based anthropologists and a helicopter pilot who, on foot, discovered first solid evidence that pointed to Erebus.

Franklin davit

The iron fitting found on an island in eastern Queen Maud Gulf last September. It is the base of a davit used to raise and lower boats on the HMS Erebus.

“I’m happy it was boots on the ground that actually led to the discovery. Sooner or later they would have hit on the right place, but it was really because we found those bits that they went and looked in the right place and found the Erebus.”


Park was with Stenton, an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, when their pilot, Andrew Stirling, called them over to examine an iron fitting he spotted on an island in Wilmot and Crampton Bay, in eastern Queen Maud Gulf. It turned out to be the base of a davit from the Erebus, used to raise and lower the ship’s boats. Two pieces of wood that Stirling found the same day were also from the Erebus. These discoveries led the underwater archeology team to the area nearby where Erebus was found the next day.

“We knew we had found something very cool. The davit part clearly came from a Royal Navy ship and the only ones in the area had to be the Erebus or Terror.” 


Ryan Harris, a Parks Canada senior underwater archeologist on the team, was reported in the Toronto Star as saying the davit was “probably the most important, land-base archeology find in modern times” linked to the Franklin expedition.


A button found in the Erebus Bay area. The button was either part of the clothing or on the gear belonging to a crew member of the Fanklin expedition.

One might think that for Park, this would have been the high point of a career spent researching the archeology of the Arctic. While supporting Stenton and the Government of Nunavut has been thrilling, he says it’s a small part of the work he does in the North. 

“The research I’ve done on Inuit archeology is, in some ways, closer to my heart,” says Park. “The Franklin story is very evocative. The stuff I’ve done on the Inuit has less media appeal but it is at least as important, if not more so.”

Inuit doll

Toy dolls, at least 700 years old, from the Thule culture found on Devon Island.

Both Park and Stenton hope the media focus on Franklin will heighten awareness and spur interest in the complex issues and fascinating history of Canada’s Far North. Stenton says one of Park’s greatest contributions to the history of Canada is his research on the Dorset and Thule cultures, the direct ancestors of the Inuit.

“Understanding the technological, social and cultural ways people created a very successful way of life is fascinating. I go up there with all the modern conveniences — Mountain Equipment Co-op gear, freeze-dried food, icebreakers and helicopters,” says Park. “Without all these things, these people figured out not only how to survive, but how to build a society that worked really well. As an anthropologist, that is endlessly fascinating to me.”

Park and Stenton have walked hundreds of kilometres in Canada’s Far North finding human remains, tools, cooking pots and children’s toys in the ancient tent rings that dot the tundra. But the artifact closest to Park’s heart is a child’s mitten, estimated to be between 700 and 1,000 years old, that he found on the largest uninhabited island on Earth. Devon Island is a place so forbidding that space researchers use it as a stand-in for the planet Mars.

Intuit mitten

A child's mitten, estimated to be between 700 and 1,000 years old, found on Devon Island in Nunavut.

“It’s a handmade mitten that the child’s mother would have made. It has fox fur around the cuff. The child would have been between five and 10 years old. It wouldn’t have been preserved in almost any other environment in the world."


“When you find something like that, it’s very special. You’re getting very, very close to people. It’s a child’s mitten,” says Park. “I recall losing an awful lot of mittens as a kid.”

Park’s research on the archeology of childhood in the Arctic points to the importance of archeological research in Northern Canada.

“The prehistoric sites that we investigate are really a testimony to human adaptation in a very harsh environment,” says Stenton. “That people have lived and thrived there for thousands of years does not diminish the dangers of the environment, if you don’t know what you’re doing. I hope that through this work, Canadians will get a better appreciation for Nunavut and Northern Canada in general.”

Park’s work on the Franklin search and on the Inuit and their ancestors also illustrates the value of walking, observing and basic fieldwork.

“There’s 4,500 years of archeology in the Canadian Arctic as opposed to this 170-year-old Canadian story about the Franklin expedition. It’s a great story, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not the only story.”