Category Archives: Underwater Archaeology

Erebus Ice Dive Makes Total Sense

Wearing an insulated diving suit and hooked up to a surface supply of oxygen, a member of the Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Team prepares to enter the water during a training session.  Copyright Parks Canada
Wearing an insulated diving suit and hooked up to a surface supply of oxygen, a member of the Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Team prepares to enter the water during a training session. Copyright Parks Canada

The Canadian military and Parks Canada today (one hour ago) revealed more details on their joint ‘ice dive’ next month on the wreck of the H.M.S.Erebus lost in the frozen wastes of the Canadian arctic in 1848. The initial announcement raised eyebrows when it was revealed that divers would be accessing the wreck while the pack ice over the site would be some seven feet thick.

Lt. Cdr. Stephan Julien spoke during a technical briefing for the press at 11:00am this morning. “Actually the pack ice provides better conditions for diving than open water. We will have a stable platform over the wreck and this will support special equipment that would normally require a much larger ship. We can also land ski-equipped aircraft on the ice, making it much easier to bring equipment in and out.”

Marc-Andre Bernier, the Parks Canada archaeologist in charge of the underwater archaeological aspects of the project also sees advantages on and under the ice. “Last September when the wreck was discovered we were limited by the weather and the diver air supply. At most divers using tanks would have an hour underwater—and then only during good weather. Storms prevented us from diving much of the time. By diving from an ice platform with diverse on umbilicals we can push our dive times to the limit. Also the bad weather meant that visibility was not good – we expect to get better visibility under the ice.”

According to Julien, dive teams will consist of an archaeologist and a military diver, both wearing helmeted suits with a tether, air umbilical and communications lines to the surface. Each diver will also have a back-up air bottle. They will enter through holes drilled in the seven foot ice cap to work on the wreck site. “It is actually all very safe, “ said Julien. “Getting back to the surface is a simple matter of following the tether back to the hole in the ice. “

The April Erebus project will be supported by a strong military presence including the Royal Canadian Air Force, Navy and Army. The US will also represented by an Air National Guard unit from Schenectady New York that will fly a ski equipped aircraft to the site. This kind of support for archaeological operations has occurred before—most notably on the Hamilton and Scourge project in Lake Ontario when two 1812 War period wrecks were examined. Even the Canadian Space Agency will be involved in providing security for the location of the wreck between project operations.

The entire project will be dedicated to developing a better understanding the Erebus site, says Marc-Andre Bernier. “We need to clear kelp from the wreck to improve visibility, then we will have three areas of interest to examine. The hull itself, the perimeter around the hull and the interior of the hull. With kelp removed we will be able to video and photo map the wreck. We will then examine the perimeter and conduct a text excavation in order to understand the nature of the soils and artifact content. Finally we will also use robotics and cameras on rods to look inside the hull and record any contents.”

The Parks Canada approach is very conservative one designed to fully understand the site before any major disturbance results from excavation and removal of timbers. “We do not plan to remove artifacts at this stage but a conservator will be on hand in the event anything of major importance has to be recovered,” said Bernier. More to come on the Archaeology Hour broadcast next month.

A full transcript of the Technical Briefing is provided by Parks Canada and is found at :  http://wp.me/P5zmjV-24

 

 

Erebus Ice dives begin in April

 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen receive the Erebus Medal from John Geiger, CEO of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and Dr. Paul Ruest, President of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, for their contributions to and support for the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition which led to the discovery of HMS Erebus during an event at the Royal Ontario
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen receive the Erebus Medal from John Geiger, CEO of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and Dr. Paul Ruest, President of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, for their contributions to and support for the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition which led to the discovery of HMS Erebus during an event at the Royal Ontario

The Canadian Government announced this morning that divers from Parks Canada will dive on the wreck of the recently discovered HMS Erebus in April, months ahead of the originally planned season to begin in July. The archaeologists will be supported by a military operation and will place divers under an ice cap over the wreck site that normally thaws for a few weeks after July each year.

The announcement states, “As part of an effort to unlock the secrets of Her Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Erebus, and to learn more about the fate of the Franklin expedition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper today announced that Parks Canada and Royal Canadian Navy divers will join together for Operation NUNALIVUT and conduct approximately 11 days of intense ice diving and underwater archaeology in April.”

There is no explanation for the advanced schedule but archeologists and historians worldwide welcome the new effort to study this important time capsule of early 19th century British exploration. The Erebus was lost in 1845 as its leader, Sir John Franklin sought to discover a north west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Years of searching for the HMS Erebus and its companion ship the HMS Terror proved fruitless – until local legend pointed Park Canada archaeologists to a stretch of water where remote sensing equipment found the wreck.

The Archaeology Hour has an interview scheduled with lead archaeologist Marc-Andre Bernier on Sunday March 6th. Results will be reported immediately on the podcast’s blog and a full audio interview will appear on an upcoming edition of the enhanced podcast.

More information on the Erebus discover can be found in our earlier report at http://wp.me/p5zmjV-R

The announcement was made following at the Royal Ontario Museum where the “Erebus Medal” was presented to the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen by John Geiger, CEO of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and Dr. Paul Ruest, President of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. The award was made for contributions to and support for the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition which led to the discovery of HMS Erebus.

The Prime Minister said. “Operation NUNALIVUT will showcase to the world the extraordinary abilities of Canadian Armed Forces ice divers and Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists. I wish all participants the best as they embark on winter dives beneath the Arctic ice to learn more about HMS Erebus.”

The Prime Minister added that the award, “…recognizes our commitment to discovering one of our country’s greatest maritime mysteries. This discovery would not have been possible without the incredible efforts of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition made up of government, private and non-profit partners, including The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. I had the privilege to take part in the search last summer during my annual northern tour and was impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the searchers plumbing Canada’s frigid northern waters. ”

 

 

Dark water diving & artifacts on the CSS Georgia

print of the CSS Georgia
Contemporary print of the CSS Georgia (pubic domain)

Archeologists are now working to remove small artifacts and map sections of the wreckage of the massive Confederate Ironclad CSS Georgia in Savannah Harbor prior to heavy lifting operations, expected to be completed by the end of this summer.

According to principal investigator Julie Morgan, an archaeologist with the Corps of Engineers, divers will be working in zero visibility conditions guided by an underwater acoustic positioning system and  “a navigation web of transit lines that helps the diver move around the site.”

Even so diving on the wreck will not be easy or safe. The ship was scuttled by the Confederates as Sherman’s Union forces marched on Savannah on the Georgia coast at the mouth of the Savannah River. The wreckage sat on the edge of the ship channel and has been struck by vessels and dredgers over the years. The protective covering of the upper structure, the casemates, were constructed of railroad iron. Over the years since its sinking, the wreck has become a tangled mess of iron and accumulated debris brought downriver by swift currents.

“The current is abated by diving at slack tide only.  All the divers have extensive experience working in black water environments and work only under the supervision of the Corps’ dive inspector.  Safety is the Corps’ top priority. No more than two divers will be in the water at once for safety reasons,” said Morgan.

effrey Pardee, Panamerican diver tender, examines diver James Duff's equipment and topside air supply during an initial dive event Jan. 22, 2015, on the Savannah River near Old Fort Jackson. Duff, a Panamerican diver and maritime archaeologist, used a rope to connect sections of the CSS Georgia wreck site scuttled on the river floor. A network of ropes connects wreck site artifacts and assists divers to navigate through the murky underwater floor of the Savannah River. CSS Georgia recovery is the first action begun under the construction phase of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Chelsea Smith.)
Jeffrey Pardee, Panamerican diver tender, examines diver James Duff’s equipment and topside air supply during an initial dive event Jan. 22, 2015, on the Savannah River near Old Fort Jackson. Duff, a Panamerican diver and maritime archaeologist, used a rope to connect sections of the CSS Georgia wreck site scuttled on the river floor. A network of ropes connects wreck site artifacts and assists divers to navigate through the murky underwater floor of the Savannah River. CSS Georgia recovery is the first action begun under the construction phase of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Chelsea Smith.)

Once the divers have completed mapping, tagging and recovery operations, the US Navy will recover heavy materials. “The archaeological data recovery phase is expected to last until early summer 2015.  Upon completion of that phase, the US Navy will set up on site to recover ordnance, large artifacts, the casemate sections and miscellaneous railroad iron using large mechanized machinery.  A lift plan that details where cuts will be made, placement of straps and slings, and type of lift structure will be developed for each artifact and casemate section in the next couple of months, ” said Morgan.

According to Ms. Morgan, earlier surveys have been used to plan the operation now underway, “The Georgia has periodically been investigated since the late 1970s as funding became available.  In 1979 a site assessment was conducted to determine the approximate site size and degree of integrity. Ordnance, small artifacts and two cannon were recovered in 1986 by Savannah District after the vessel was damaged by a dredge.  In-situ investigations were conducted in 2003 to fully map the site and document conditions.  Most recently multibeam and sidescan sonar surveys were completed in 2013 to document site changes since 2003.  The results of those surveys provided the base map for the current data recovery effort.  Also in 2013 a small casemate section was recovered during a test recovery exercise.”

It is now believed that nothing of the hull of the Georgia remains. The massive upper works may have crushed the wooden hull beneath it. This, coupled with teredo worm damage in the salty estuarine water, may have resulted in the complete disintegration of the hull. Morgan states: “Studies conducted in the 1970s thought that the hull was buried underneath sediments.  In the 1980s, it was thought to be underneath one of the casemate sections.  In both instances, it was never seen, only THOUGHT to be there.

“It was not until 2003 when Panamerican Consultants, Inc. conducted in-situ investigations and confirmed that there is no indication that any of the hull exists on the site.  This was verified in 2013 by the multibeam and sidescan sonar.  What happened to the hull?  It is difficult to tell.  It has been hypothesized that, if it were fairly intact, it may have been  recovered during the salvage attempt in the late 1860s-1870s.  Alternatively, it could have been badly damaged as a result of the salvage attempt and slowly deteriorated and/or was carried off the site by currents.   Regardless, there are no remains of the hull.  We hope that the edges of the casemate sections and any fasteners will provide clues as to what the hull was like.”

Given the presence of heavy silting and the resulting anaerobic environment, it may be possible that some heavy timbers, such as live oak frames, or the very bottom strakes of the hull, have survived. Whether or not this is so remains to be seen.

The Archaeology Hour asked Morgan about the disposition of any artifacts that might remain in the wreckage. According to Morgan there is no archival record of anything having been removed from the ironclad before it was scuttled. If the ship was abandoned in haste ahead of Sherman’s army, it may therefore contain artifacts.

“The archaeologists are currently recovering small artifacts from the wreck site.  No personal items have been found.  It is unlikely that we will find anything else due to the lack of sediments and the current,” added Morgan.

“The Corps has contracted with Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University to conserve the artifacts that will be retained for curation and exhibit.  All of the large artifacts, i.e., cannons and power plant parts, as well as ordnance, casemate sections and other small artifacts with unique or diagnostic features will be conserved.  There are no loan agreements in place at this time, but several museums of have expressed interest in exhibiting the artifacts.  Final decisions regarding the disposition of the artifacts will be made by the US Navy as that agency is held accountable for CSS Georgia,” Morgan said. The entire property of the Confederate States of America, especially its fleets and weapons, became the property of the Federal Government following the defeat of the Confederacy.

The Archaeology Hour hopes to broadcast an audio interview with Ms. Morgan in the coming weeks, followed a video segment later in the year.

 

The archaeology hour podcast can be found at:

http://archaeologyhour.podomatic.com

Revealed: The Fate of H.M.S. Erebus

CHS_Picture10-caption_sm
Multibeam image of HMS Erebus produced by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. The ship image is false-coloured using different palettes in order to highlight key features, depth and shape of the shipwreck located in Queen Maud Gulf. Image is generated with the ship’s bow facing south-east in direction. (Canadian Hydrographic Service)

It was in the midst of the great age of British exploration. Sir John Franklin, aboard the H.M.S. Erebus and followed by the H.M.S. Terror, set out to find a north west passage from the Atlantic through the Arctic to the Pacific. The ships and their entire crews were never to be seen again.

Last Night Marc-Andre Bernier of Parks Canada and Douglas Stenton of the Government of Nunavut, Canada’s largest northern territory, fully revealed the details of the recent discovery of the Erebus. The ill-fated ship was recently found resting in waters of Queen Maud Gulf.

Many expeditions were sent to learn the fate of the two ships. Over the years a trickle of information revealed that the desperate crews struggled to survive in the hard Arctic environment on Beechey Island near the frozen ships. Some even attempted a desperate trek south.

 

Sir John Franklin (Public Domain)
Sir John Franklin (Public Domain)

Searchers found the Beechey Island Camp – and a few graves. Franklin, a note said, had died in 1847.

The misery of the ships prevailed into modern times with some details gleaned from Beechey Island and much more learned from local Inuits who preserved an oral tradition concerning the location of the ships. Using this information a consortium of groups led by the Government of Nunavut and Parks Canada found the Erebus in September of last year.

Last night’s presentation and Internet forum revealed more details of the discovery. The Erebus lies in 33 feet of water, its massive hull damaged by centuries of Arctic winters. The hulls of both ships would have been eventually crushed by the ice. Once beneath the surface, a five foot cap of surface ice would have demolished the superstructure.

Astern of the wreck, Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Filippo Ronca measures the muzzle bore diameter of one of two cannons found on the site, serving to identify this gun as a brass 6-pounder.  @ Thierry Boyer / Parks Canada
Astern of the wreck, Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Filippo Ronca measures the muzzle bore diameter of one of two cannons found on the site, serving to identify this gun as a brass 6-pounder.
@ Thierry Boyer / Parks Canada

According to Bernier, the wreck is in a state of excellent preservation, the dark, cold water serving to preserve timbers and organics. While the exterior of the hull has been surveyed, divers have yet to enter the wreck–filled with everything needed to help the crews survive the harsh conditions. Unfortunately cans of tinned food contained high levels of lead and the water purification system may also have added to the lead poisoning. Many of the men appear to have died from scurvy, tuberculosis and lead poisoning.

The next field season on the wreck –and the continuing search for the H.M.S. Terror–will begin in July when the winter ice over the site begins to thaw. The Archaeology Hour will bring you an interview with Marc-Andre Bernier and with Doug Stenton during its broadcast after the Pilot Show due to air in March.

The detached ship’s bell of HMS Erebus as found on the deck.  © Parks Canada / Thierry Boyer
The detached ship’s bell of HMS Erebus as found on the deck.
© Parks Canada / Thierry Boyer
Parks Canada’s Ryan Harris (left) and Jonathan Moore (middle) examine the ship’s bell with Government of Nunavut archaeologist Dr. Douglas Stenton (right).  © Parks Canada / Thierry Boyer
Parks Canada’s Ryan Harris (left) and Jonathan Moore (middle) examine the ship’s bell with Government of Nunavut archaeologist Dr. Douglas Stenton (right).
© Parks Canada / Thierry Boyer