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DNA confirmed identity of engineer on HMS Erebus – and raises more questions in Franklin Expedition mystery

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Jonathan Gregory didn’t give too much thought to the implications when he sent the cheek swab for analysis.

But then the results returned, confirming for the first time by DNA the identity of the remains of one of the members of the 19th century Franklin Expedition: his great-great-great-grandfather, Warrant Officer John. Gregory.

“It’s a pretty weird feeling,” Gregory said from his home in South Africa. “He was an engineer on the boat and his DNA matched mine.”

The ship was HMS Erebus, which along with HMS Terror transported their British crew on the ill-fated polar mission led by John Franklin through what is now the Canadian Arctic in search of the elusive Northern Passage -Where is.

The reinforced wooden ships that left Greenhithe, England in 1845 were beset by ice off King William Island in 1846 and deserted two years later, according to a note left by the crew in a cairn. Franklin and his 128 men are dead.

But what really happened during the expedition has been a lingering mystery. The discovery of the Erebus wreck in 2014, and the Terror two years later, in many ways, only raised more questions, especially regarding how the ships ended up. where they are. (Erebus is found in the shallows of Wilmot and Crampton Bay, about 100 kilometers south of the Terror.)

Identify the crew’s key to solving the mystery

Confirmation of Gregory’s identity is the most publicized recent development in the ongoing quest to solve the Franklin mystery.

“Gregory’s discovery is huge,” Russell Potter, professor of English at Rhode Island College in Providence, RI, and author of Finding Franklin, The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search, said in an interview.

“This skull has been featured time and time again.… It was on the cover of Equinox magazine, the famous upside down skull on the rocks that everyone somehow knows.”

It is, he said, a bit like “finally having an old friend identified.”

Along with identifying Gregory, having more crew member names could open up other opportunities for understanding what happened during the expedition.

“If we can identify more people, then we can start to correlate some other things,” Potter said.

“So we’re starting to correlate identity with other details on the remains, that might help us figure out exactly what they mean.”

WATCH | Parks Canada video of HMS Erebus:

A Parks Canada video shows the underwater archeology on the wreckage of the Franklin Expedition. 5:22

Jonathan Gregory sent his sample after hearing a cousin in Canada talk about a team asking the living descendants of the original expedition crew to provide DNA.

The team of researchers from the University of Waterloo, Lakehead University and Trent University – all in Ontario – confirmed Gregory’s identity by matching Jonathan Gregory’s sample with DNA Extracted from tooth and bone samples excavated at Erebus Bay on King William Island in Nunavut in 2013.

“There were a lot more sailors on [Erebus] … But for me what is particularly important is a breakthrough in history, where I was the first DNA match and I am very grateful to have been able to be present, ”said Gregory.

Douglas Stenton, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo and co-author of a new article on the identification of Gregory, said the researchers were “very excited” by the result.

“We think it’s important to learn as much as possible about these men and identifying them is fundamental to that.”

A hairbrush with a satin wood handle was among the items recovered from the lower deck of HMS Erebus by Parks Canada underwater archaeologists in September 2019. (Underwater archeology team / Parks Canada)

The quest to unravel the Franklin mystery is led by Parks Canada’s Underwater Archeology team, but their continued efforts in the Arctic have been delayed for a second year as concerns over COVID-19 delay any plan to return to the sites of the Erebus and Terror wrecks. this summer.

No one on the team was available for comment, but those following the quest to solve the Franklin Mystery from afar are falling behind in the work in the North.

“The wrecks have been intact for 150 years. They can afford to have another two years off,” said longtime Franklin author and detective David Woodman.

And, he is quick to point out, underwater archaeologists have plenty of other work to do, including a more in-depth study of over 350 artifacts that were recovered while at the Erebus site. in the summer of 2019.

They also shared via social media and posted online additional information regarding a small number of artifacts, as well as a site map of Erebus and a sketch of the Terror site.

Woodman, a retired BC Ferries captain living in Port Coquitlam, BC, and author of Unraveling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, published in 1991, was also intrigued by the identification of Gregory.

“He was one of the older guys and he was from the Erebus, so when did that happen?” Was he one of the first to succumb? Woodman said. “We know he wasn’t the first to die because other work was done… so what was going on with John Gregory that he ended up in Erebus Bay?”

Sealing wax made from a mixture of shellac and turpentine, with vermilion and chalk, was among the artefacts recovered in 2019 from the site of the Erebus wreck. (Underwater archeology team / Parks Canada)

Woodman is also fascinated by the artifacts that have been recovered so far from the Erebus, including hair that could be used for DNA pairing, sealing wax that had its own distinctive markings, and a piece ruler of a navigation instrument belonging to Frederick Hornby.

“The Sovereign of Hornby is strange because first of all, Hornby was not on the Erebus. He was from Terror,” said Woodman.

“You can go mad with your speculations as to why a Terror officer was on board the Erebus when it sank, or was he? Or did they just take their navigation equipment, and if so, why not take someone else’s navigation equipment? “

WATCH | HMS Terror wreckage video footage:

HMS Terror submarine wreck

The Parks Canada video of the HMS Terror underwater wreck shows everything from furniture to bowls and tumblers. 3:15

As much as Woodman is not “too disturbed” that underwater archaeologists have not visited the North this year, he is concerned that momentum will be maintained for the project, especially if the federal election can be successful. to a new government that is “not so keen on putting the money there or diverting it elsewhere,” he said.

“Keeping the momentum going when doing something so close to the edge of the envelope is very important.”

HMS Erebus can be seen, lying in about 11 meters of water, as Parks Canada underwater archaeologists work from their barge above the wreckage. (Underwater archeology team / Parks Canada)

If it misses two or three years, maybe part of the fire goes out under the project.

“The fire will not go out below Parks [Canada]”said Woodman.” Parks loves this project, [but] Parks is only a small part of Environment Canada, and if you run Environment Canada, you have a lot of competing interests. “

As much as Parks Canada is focused on Franklin’s efforts, so is Stenton, who thrives on the archaeological land work he has been doing in the North as part of the expedition for several years.

Doug Stenton, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo, works excavating the remains of an unidentified crew member from the 1845 Franklin Expedition. The remains of the recently identified Warrant Officer John Gregory have were found in the same area at Erebus Bay on King William Island. (Submitted by Robert W. Park)

While the pandemic has delayed his plans to return to the Arctic this summer, he is busy with further research and analysis. Researchers have 16 DNA sequences that can be compared to archaeological samples, Stenton said, and plan to test another descendant sample this month.

“The land record and the sea record are not mutually exclusive,” he said.

“Most of what we know – or think we know is probably the best way to say it – about what happened, we currently know at terrestrial sites.”

And that is, he suggests, why there is so much “anticipation and excitement” about what the wrecks can reveal.

“Will the findings answer many of these questions? … Maybe they will. Maybe some mysteries will remain. Who knows.”



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