The Arctic is a desert, and the combination of low moisture and deep cold makes conditions excellentfor preservation. The bones we find might be five or 500 years old; there is no easy way to discernthem. Since the Middle Ages, Inuit hunters around the polar cap have been digging up woollymammoth tusks and selling the ivory. Just weeks before we arrive, a 15,000-year-old mammothcarcass was dug up in Siberia. Scientists are excited by the prospect of harvesting the soft tissue for
DNA samples that might later be used for cloning. This is what makes the Arctic an archaeologist’s
dream, the frozen twin of the hot desert, but with one remarkable difference: the Arctic excavates itself.Imagine that, if every year, for three months, 10 feet of sand in the Egyptian Western desert simplydisappeared. What artifacts, tombs and structures would be revealed? It would be a treasure trove.
That is exactly what happens in the Arctic when the snow melts, and it’s why the Franklin voyage iseven more troubling. Why hasn’t more been found? Where did it all go? Other than one note found in
scant details about Franklin’s death and the subsequent abandonment of the ships, no
journals have ever been recovered. Out of 129 men lost, fewer than 40 skeletons have beenaccounted for. Staring at bones on the Todd Islands and not realizing if they are from the lost crew or
from last year’s caribou kill is as frustrating as it is humiliating. Franklin’s error. Like so many
kabloonas before us, we have to rely on Inuit help.
“This is it,” Louie says, after we’ve walked for 10 minutes.
He stops at a small circle of rocks three feetin diameter. At first it looks innocuous, just another bit of Arctic detritus. But as we look closer, we seethat in the centre of the circle there are bones. Even to our untrained eyes these look different than theothers. Pointing down, Louie fluently identifies them.
“These are human bones. That’s a hip, that’s part of a spine, a leg and a shoulder.”
There is a moment of awed silence. Louie says: “I believe this is one of the graves from the Franklinexpedition.”
“Who else knows about this?” I ask, assuming we must be in the midst of a well
-known archeologicalsite, or at the very least, a crime scene.
He shakes his head. “No one. Since Hall wrote about it in 1878, it’s never been seen before, except byme," he says. “And now you.”
Charles Francis Hall, an eccentric American, became an important figure in the search for Franklin.Like many in his time, the fate of the Franklin voyage mesmerized him. Despite the fact that he hadnever been north of the Great Lakes, the Cincinnati-based publisher believed that he had been chosenby God to go to the Arctic to find the lost sailors. In 1860, away he went. Twelve years after theFranklin crew went missing, Hall thought many must still be alive and living with the Inuit. He livedamong the Inuit for five years, even learning their language, in hopes of obtaining some key evidence.When told of five white men whose remains were found on the Todds, Hall came to investigate. Hediscovered one skeleton that was later determined to be that of Lieutenant Le Vesconte (of theErebus). Hall interred it. In 1931, a local King William Islander, Charlie Gibson, came here to search for remains and found another skull. Were we looking at the grave that Hall interred, or was thissomething else entirely?
“How do you know it is a Franklin grave?” Kevin asks.
“Maybe it is an Inuit body from a different time?”
The Inuit don’t bury their dead like this, Louie explains. They don’t mark off graves with rock or bother
to dig them into the ground. In the old days the dead were simply wrapped up and left behind. But onthe Franklin voyage, Louie says, this was typical. Dig as deeply as possible into the permafrost.Collect stones and place them around a shallow grave and then
he points his finger
mark the head,the north end of the grave, with a black stone. English style, not Inuit. Louie suggests that over theyears the permafrost has heaved the bones and slowly, through the thaw and the freeze, shrunk thegrave circle to what we see. A flock of eider ducks flashes over our heads and turns toward the strait.
“These islands have never been fully explored,” Louie says. “There are other remains here, I know.”
We drop to our knees to get a closer look, but don’t touch anything. Without archaeological permi
ts wecan do nothing but observe. It is almost unbearable. If this is a Franklin grave, then it is a significanthistorical find. Would it not be better to collect the bones and send them to a university for identification? With climate change making this place more accessible, what stops someone from