Investigating A Maritime Mystery

In 1845 HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set sail from England to find a navigable route through the Northwest Passage. Both ships disappeared in the Canadian Arctic, and their whereabouts had been unknown for decades.

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Erebus’ bell was found at the site. The date 1845 is embossed near the top of the bell.
Erebus’ bell was found at the site. The date 1845 is embossed near the top of the bell. Credit: arks Canada / Thierry Boyer

Fall 2015: By Tom Koppel

 “That’s it. That’s it,” shouted underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris as the clear outline of a sunken ship suddenly came across his screen in September 2014. His crewmates in the wheelhouse of the Canadian survey boat Investigator, which was towing a side-scan sonar, began to hug and high-five each other. Given its location near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic, the wreck had to be either HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, two iconic 19th-century British ships. This was the sixth summer the team had been surveying the ocean floor in search of the two shipwrecks. It was a euphoric moment, “like winning the Stanley Cup” in hockey, recalls Harris, who has led those searches.

He and his colleagues from Parks Canada, the government agency responsible for finding and protecting the shipwrecks because they’re a national historic site, soon deployed a small, remotely-operated vehicle to give them video images. Multi-beam sonar from an accompanying Canadian Hydrographic Service boat produced even clearer 3-D representations. They showed that the dimensions and design details of the shipwreck matched those of the Erebus.

Harris and Jonathan Moore, another underwater archaeologist with Parks Canada, dove the shipwreck for a closer inspection. It was “exhilarating and fascinating,” says Moore, “just the sheer wonder.” Although stormy conditions had stirred up sediment, “we could see tolerably well.” What they found was a surprisingly-intact hull resting upright at a depth of less than 40 feet. A later dive brought up the ship’s bell. Rough weather and the approach of winter meant that further study of the site would have to wait.

Summary. Read More  in our Fall 2015 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 19 No. 3

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