OTTAWA (Reuters) - Explorers trying to trace two ships from the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition in Canada’s Arctic found fragments of copper sheeting likely to have come from the vessels, one of the explorers said on Friday.
Sir John Franklin, his 128 crew and the British ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were seeking the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans when they became stuck in ice. The men all died and the ships vanished.
“The archeological discoveries exceeded our expectations. We found copper fragments which could well have come from one of the ships we’re looking for,” said Robert Grenier, chief of underwater archeology at Parks Canada.
“They revealed the prior presence of considerable number of these sheets,” he told reporters. “This was for us, I would say, a very significant find.”
Copper did not exist naturally in the region and the sheets could not have been made by the local Inuit, he said.
The team found the fragments during a six-week trip in August and September to three islands near O‘Reilly Island in the Queen Maud Gulf, close to where Franklin’s ships are believed to have sunk.
“Just as the DNA in a lock of hair can provide detectives with evidence proving a criminal’s guilt, these ... (fragments) indicate that we are on the right track,” said Grenier. Other searches over the years found traces on copper sheets on other islands in the vicinity.
He said the copper fragments showed signs that Inuit had used the sheets over the years to make traditional tools.
The fate of the Franklin expedition still grips the public’s imagination and previous exploration teams have found traces of 70 crew members, many of whom started trekking overland in desperation.
Research suggests they suffered from lead poisoning from either canned food or the ships’ water supply, and Inuit stories tell of cannibalism among the doomed crew.
Grenier said his expedition had been badly hampered by fog, snow and high winds. It is due to return to the area in the summer of both 2009 and 2010.
“We are getting close to something. Whether we find it in the next two years available, I cannot say ... we know we’re in for a long haul,” he said.
The Canadian government is backing the exploration in a bid to assert its sovereignty over the waterways of the Arctic.
The United States, Britain and others disagree with Ottawa’s position that the waters in the Northwest Passage itself are Canadian rather than international waters.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway