Skeleton May Help Solve Mystery of Doomed Franklin Expedition

By Sara Reardon - Science Mag

In April of 1848, while sitting in his quarters aboard the ice-encased HMS Terror in the Canadian Arctic, Captain Francis Crozier made the fateful decision of a desperate man.

His expedition's commander, John Franklin, was dead, the explorers had failed to find the Northwest Passage, and the sea ice that had held Terror and HMS Erebus captive for 20 months seemed unlikely to release the ships anytime soon.

The men should have had plenty of provisions left, but for reasons that remain a mystery, Crozier decided to take what remained of his crew and abandon the ships, trekking across Northern Canada in search of food. No one survived.

Twenty-five years later, an Inuit guide led explorers to a spot on King William Island more than 200 kilometers from where the ships are believed to be encased, where a shallow grave contained the complete skeleton of an officer: one of the Franklin expedition's casualties.

The remains were sent home to the United Kingdom, where the renowned biologist Thomas Henry Huxley identified them as Lieutenant Henry Le Vesconte.

Now, more than a century later, a new forensic analysis of the skeleton—which had been buried in the Franklin Memorial in Greenwich, U.K.—suggests that it actually belongs to the expedition's physician and scientist, Harry Goodsir and that it may hold clues to what compelled the crew to abandon their ships.

"There's something behind it, the mystery, the tragedy, that caught my imagination," says human skeletal biologist Simon Mays of English Heritage in Portsmouth, U.K., who read about the doomed Franklin Expedition as a child.

When the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, in London was opened to be renovated and the body was exhumed, Mays and colleagues jumped at the chance to examine it.

At first, the researchers didn't question Huxley's identification of the man. Huxley had pointed out salient characteristics of the skeleton, such as a gold tooth that identified him as upper class and a protuberant chin like Le Vesconte's.

But when Mays and colleagues examined the enamel of one of the man's teeth, employing a chemical analysis technique that measures the concentration of strontium and oxygen isotopes in bone and matches them to the water supply of a region, they found that the strontium-oxygen ratio suggested that the unfortunate officer had not lived in Devon, as Le Vesconte had, but had more likely come from northern Britain. Goodsir, from Scotland, seems a more likely candidate and was of an appropriate age and height.

When the researchers performed a facial reconstruction from the skull, they found a deep groove under the lip that resembled a daguerreotype of Goodsir.

In their paper published this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the authors concede that the identification is uncertain: Several officers were from northern England or Scotland, and facial reconstruction is a shaky technique.

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HMS Erebus HMS Terror Northwest Passage Sir John Franklin Nunavut government High Arctic