By Stephen Thorne - The Winnipeg Free Press
Archeologists diving on a 19th century shipwreck have brought back a small cache of artifacts they hope will tell them more about the lost Franklin expedition.
With youthful enthusiasm, veteran staff from Parks Canada showed off ship's fittings, copper hull plates, a British marine musket from 1842 and a pair of shoes plucked from the deck of HMS Investigator just eight metres beneath the freezing Arctic waters.
The former merchant ship made two voyages to the Arctic in search of Sir John Franklin's storied expedition, but was abandoned in 1853 after becoming stuck in the once-impenetrable Arctic ice. The ship was found last year in Mercy Bay, off Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea.
"I've been doing this for over 20 years," Marc-Andre Bernier, chief of underwater archeology services, told a news conference Thursday. "This was probably the most phenomenal and exciting project — for all of us.
"To dive on that shipwreck that is literally frozen in time ... and having this phenomenal ship in front us standing proud on the bottom with artifacts on the deck was for us totally unprecedented.
"It was one of the highlights of our careers."
A team of six divers, including one from the U.S. Parks Service, conducted more than 100 forays, aided by July's midnight sun, under waters ranging in temperature from -2C to +2C.
What they found astounded even the most experienced among them.
Artifacts — including the shoes and a bent musket, its trigger guard altered to accommodate winter gloves — lay exposed on the ship's decks and strewn on the sandy bottom.
Divers recovered 16 pieces, primarily to protect them from the ravages of time and ice, and to evaluate their overall condition.
The hull plates — one of which was lined with insulating felt — were particularly valuable archeologically, said Bernier. They will help identify pieces found elsewhere and perhaps point searchers toward Franklin's lost ships.
He said much of Investigator's interior is filled with sediment, likely preserving many more treasures of an age long past.
HMS Investigator was purchased and refitted by the British Admiralty in 1848, the same year the ship accompanied HMS Enterprise on James Clark Ross's expedition in a futile search for Franklin.
The vessel became trapped in the ice on the second trip and was abandoned three years later, on June 3, 1853. Investigator was inspected by crews of HMS Resolute a year later, still frozen in, and reported in fair condition despite having taken in water during the summer thaw.