Parks Canada 2010 Arctic Surveys

Notes from the Field

Project Update: HMS Investigator Rediscovery Project

August 2010

Henry Cary
Western Arctic Field Unit
Parks Canada

The project began on 19 July with two Twin Otter flights full of gear and fuel departing Inuvik for Polar Bear Cabin, north Banks Island. Despite fog and even freezing rain, both planes touched down safely on this remote landing strip, and with the help of Blake Bartzen (Canadian Wildlife Service) and Chris Hunter (Parks Canada), I could unload the equipment in readiness for transport to Mercy Bay on 22 July. Thankfully, the weather in Inuvik and Banks Island on 22 July was clear and warm, and we had no problems landing in Polar Bear Cabin with the full archaeological team. At Polar Bear Cabin we were met by Brian Healey of Canadian Helicopters, who flew ten half-hour flights to ferry us, and slung our equipment and freshwater to Mercy Bay.

Setting up camp in Mercy Bay took the bulk of the first day but the next day we could use our helicopter time to get a series of photographs of the land depot sites from directly overhead. Before flying, we set up a number of ground control points that can be later used to reference the photos and create a site-wide photo mosaic. Brian was available the following day as well, and this time John Lucas, Edward Eastaugh, Letitia Pokiak and I flew to the bottom of Mercy Bay where a rich aboriginal site had been discovered in 1996. Our first view of the site from the air gave the impression that most of the site was mostly a natural outcrop of large boulders, but when we landed and walked over the site on foot, large dwellings and caches appeared, surrounded by the bleached animal bones from geese, caribou, muskox and even seals and whales. A closer look further revealed an impressive array of stone implements such as scrapers, projectile point fragments and a large quartzite ‘biface’ that was used either as a knife or a spear point. All showed a high level of craftsmanship despite being made of quartzite, a difficult stone to fashion into tools. We then flew on to Mottley Island, where maps drawn by men of HMS Investigator indicated they had found ‘Esquimaux Remains.’ However, despite searching the entire island on foot, the only evidence of human inhabitation we found on this little island was a scatter of wood fragments, probably salvaged by Copper Inuit from Investigator herself. Shortly after returning to camp, the underwater team reported they had found Investigator upright not far from shore and well-preserved. In just the first three days we had met with amazing success.

Henry Cary recording coal pile from McClure's Cache Henry Cary recording coal pile from McClure's Cache
© Parks Canada

Not to be outdone, the land team of John, Joe, Mervin, Letitia, and myself then moved to the geophysics investigation, led by Edward Eastaugh. After two days of surveying the north portion of the depot site, Ed picked out three anomalies on the results, all the same size and oriented east/west. Walking to where the anomalies were identified, we could easily pick out three low mounds that are almost certainly the graves of three sailors known to have died on Investigator in 1853. Applying geophysics this far north was a risk, but the technology soon proved its ability for discovering features that had eluded visitors to the site since the early 20th Century. We were also helped by Dr. Hans Rollmann’s (Memorial University) new translation of a diary left by Investigator’s Inuit translator, Johann Miertsching. In the original English translation, Miertsching is quoted as saying the seamen were buried, ‘on the shore.’ Rollmann’s translation, however, corrected this as being ‘on the land’ thereby expanding the area covered by Ed’s geophysics survey.

As this work was underway, the land team was also mapping surface finds at the depot and this too revealed many surprises. Instead of being one large but dispersed scatter of barrel staves, the depot remains could be divided into five different activity areas. Closest to the beach were nearly exclusively the remains of small boats, all of which had been broken up by Copper Inuit to salvage their nails, while throughout the rest of the site were artefacts that had not been seen before. The keen eyes of Mervin Joe, Joe Kudlak, John Lucas, Jonathan Moore and Letitia Pokiak, identified deposits of buckshot, copper percussion caps, buttons, and even a fragment of a boat’s exterior that had been stamped with a letter code indicating where it had been constructed. Before being collected for conservation and further study, each artefact was photographed and then surveyed using a precise laser-ranging instrument called a Total Station. This also creates a digital file of all the artefact locations, as well as topographic information, that can be manipulated to create a three-dimensional digital map of the land site.

It was 12:30 am on 2 August before the last artefacts was finally surveyed, our work being interrupted during the last two days by gale force winds, driving rain and high waves that threatened to both blow down our tents and swamp them with seawater. Although 3 August did not break clear, and even brought snow, there was just enough visibility and ceiling for Brian to get to Mercy Bay and begin our scheduled evacuation back to Polar Bear Cabin. The poor weather continued at Polar Bear Cabin, delaying our Twin Otter flight from Inuvik until the next day. When we finally did take off from Polar Bear Cabin, we continued to be hit by fog and this forced the pilots ever closer to the ground and even abort a necessary landing in Sachs Harbour for refueling. Thankfully conditions were clear in Uluhaktok on Victoria Island and we could land there to refuel before flying on to Inuvik. It took another three days before the gear we left at Polar Bear Cabin could be picked up by Twin Otter.