Canadian Researchers Uncover Remains Of Tragic Arctic Expedition

Arctic
“Man Proposes, God Disposes” by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1864. Wikimedia Commons.

A few days ago we talked about the story of Dr. John Rae, a nearly forgotten Arctic explorer who in 1854 went in search of the missing Franklin Expedition. This was a Royal Navy expedition that set out in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the frozen arctic north of Canada. Rae talked with the local Inuit people and heard the survivors had all died, some resorting to cannibalism before they succumbed to the elements. The public was so shocked that they turned their ire against Rae, whose career was all but ruined.

Now a Canadian research team is investigating the site to try to find out more about what happened. It’s known that the expedition involved two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, and that they came to grief near King William Island in September 1846, where they got trapped in the ice hundreds of miles form the nearest town.

The crew tried walking out, but none made it more than 40 miles. All 129 officers and crew died.

A Canadian team, led by Parks Canada has made five expeditions to find traces of this tragedy. They’ve been focusing their efforts on King William Island, where this year they found some 200 artifacts and human bones. They also scanned 486 square kilometers of seafloor with sidescan sonar in the hopes of finding one of their ships preserved in the frigid waters, but they had no luck.

The artifacts have been brought back to a lab to be studied. They’ve already found evidence that some of the metal objects were reused by the local Inuit. The bones will be returned to the site and given a proper burial next year.

Arctic Explorer Gets Belated Recognition

arctic
Wikimedia Commons

When I took my family to the Orkney Islands of Scotland last year I saw this curious memorial in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. It’s for an Arctic explorer named John Rae. While the name struck a bell, I knew virtually nothing about him.

Most people don’t, and that’s a shame. Rae grew up in the rugged Orkney Islands in the 19th century. Although he trained as a doctor, the wilderness was his true love. He got work with the Hudson’s Bay Company, which owned large swatches of land in northern Canada and made millions off of the fur trade. Rae set off to Canada to work as a surgeon for the company, spending ten years at the remote outpost of Moose Factory.

Rae soon distinguished himself by spending large amounts of time with the Cree and Inuit, learning their languages and customs and gaining their respect for his ability to endure the tough conditions of the Canadians north.

When the Franklin Expedition, a Royal Navy group that was searching for the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, went missing in 1845, Rae was the man that was called upon to find them. He spent several years trying to track them down. In the course of his search he mapped many previously uncharted regions and found the Northwest Passage, the very thing the Franklin Expedition had failed to do.

In 1854 he learned from the Inuit that several years before, the last of the Franklin Expedition had died of starvation. The remaining survivors had resorted to cannibalism before they, too, succumbed. The site of the tragedy was deep in the back country and the Inuit refused to take him there.

When Rae filed his report, he was immediately criticized for not checking on the natives’ story himself and for daring to suggest that members of the Royal Navy would eat each other. His reputation was ruined. Even though another expedition did go to the site and concluded that there was strong evidence that the Franklin Expedition had resorted to cannibalism, the damage had been done. Rae died all but forgotten in 1893. Of all the great explorers from the Victorian era, he is the only one not to have been given a knighthood.

Now the Arctic explorer has been given some belated recognition with a new statue in Stromness, not far from where the local Hudson’s Bay Company office used to be. It was unveiled on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

You can learn more about the adventures of Dr. John Rae in this excellent article.

The Cabinet Of Curiosities: Collecting The Wonders Of The World

Cabinet of CuriositiesBefore there was the museum, there was the cabinet of curiosities. Starting in the 16th century as Europe expanded its horizons during the Age of Exploration, the rich and powerful began to collect curios and display them. Their collections were eclectic – everything from strange weapons from distant islands to beautiful coral formations.

The objects were all put together in no particular order in one room or cabinet, which was sometimes called a Wunderkammer (“Wonder Room”). This blending of natural history and anthropology with no accounting for geography or time period allowed the viewer to see the world as a whole in all its rich diversity. Many of these collections became the nuclei for later museums that are still around today, while others are still preserved in their original state.

Ambras Castle
in Austria has the Chamber of Art and Curiosities, a collection most famous for its many portraits of “miracles of nature”, mostly people suffering from deformities, plus this guy who managed to survive a lance being stuck through his head. There’s also a suit of samurai armor, silk artwork, mechanical toys and plenty more.

The Augsberg Art Cabinet in the Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala is a beautiful little piece with all sorts of panels and drawers devoted to various themes such as life, death and religion. Click on the first link for a cool interactive exhibit.

The tradition of the Wunderkammer is kept alive by some museums. The British Museum in London has the Enlightenment Gallery, which is jam-packed with busts, fossils, Greek vases, rare books, weapons, and Asian religious statues. The Museum der Dinge (“Museum of Things”) in Berlin is a fascinating if somewhat random collection of, well, things.

%Gallery-186870%In Los Angeles there’s the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a bizarre collection of sculptures made from single human hairs and displays of dubious cures from the days before modern medicine. Strecker’s Cabinets of Curiosities in Waco, Texas, proudly displays its prize item, a humpback whale skull measuring 19 feet long and weighing 3,000 pounds. An Iron Age jug sits nearby. Random associations are what Cabinets of Curiosities are all about.

But why not start your own? A bit of travel or rummaging through yard sales can get you a constantly growing collection that will become the envy of your friends. You can even open it up to the public like the owners of Trundle Manor in Pittsburgh.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

The ‘Christopher Columbus Of China’ May Have Visited Kenya, A New Find Reveals

Kenya
An explorer from medieval China may have visited an island off the coast of Kenya, archaeologists say.

A joint expedition by The Field Museum and the University of Illinois at Chicago unearthed a 15th-century Chinese coin on the Kenyan island of Manda, according to a Field Museum press release. Starting around 200 A.D., Manda was a trading hub and home to an advanced civilization.

The coin, shown here, is an alloy of copper and silver and was issued by the Ming Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1425 A.D. The coin bears the emperor’s name.

Emperor Yongle sent Admiral Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, on an epic mission of exploration to find new trading partners. He traveled around the coasts of south and southeast Asia, east Africa as far north as Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula.

“Zheng He was, in many ways, the Christopher Columbus of China,” said Dr. Kusimba, curator of African Anthropology at The Field Museum. “This finding is significant. We know Africa has always been connected to the rest of the world, but this coin opens a discussion about the relationship between China and Indian Ocean nations.”

Sadly, later Chinese rulers took a more insular policy and banned foreign expeditions. If they had continued Yongle’s work, the great Age of Exploration may have been more Chinese than European. Manda was mysteriously abandoned around 1430, shortly after Emperor Yongle’s death.

Chinese contact with east Africa has become a hot topic of research in recent years. Back in 2010, we reported that a DNA study found genetic links between China and Africa.

While the focus has been on Kenya, researchers might want to take a look at the city of Harar in Ethiopia, which has been a trading center for centuries. Some Hararis have vaguely Chinese features, and Harari coins have been found in China. When I was doing research there some Hararis told me that the city used to trade with China many centuries ago.

In the nearby early medieval settlement of Harla, which may have been the predecessor to Harar, farmers have uncovered two Chinese coins dated to 1040 and 1080 A.D.

[Photo courtesy John Weinstein/The Field Museum]

Fabled Sunstone Discovered In English Shipwreck

sunstone
A team of French archaeologists believe they have found a sunstone, a strange crystal that was said to help mariners locate the sun even on overcast days.

Some of the medieval Norse Sagas mention this device. In “Rauðúlfs þáttr,” King Olaf asks the hero Sigurður to point out the sun in the middle of a snowstorm. Sigurður points to where it is behind the gray sky. To test him, the king had a follower “fetch the sunstone and held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurður’s prediction.”

One recent study suggests the “sunstone” was a double-refracting crystal, which allows light through when the light is polarized in certain directions. They brighten or darken depending on the polarization of the light behind it. Clouds block the sun’s visible light but let through a concentration of polarized light that can be detected by the crystal as it’s moved around. Double-refracting crystals such as cordierite, tourmaline and calcite are common in Scandinavia.

Some scholars have expressed doubts about the sunstone’s existence because “Rauðúlfs þáttr” is a highly allegorical tale full of magical events.

Now it appears the tale may not be all that fantastic after all. Archaeologists from the University of Rennes have been studying finds from a British ship that sunk in 1592 near the island of Alderney in the English Channel. They found a rectangular block of Iceland spar calcite crystal, a type known for its double-refracting properties. The crystal was found next to a pair of dividers that may have been used for navigation.

The researchers suggest that their discovery shows the use of sunstones lasted well beyond the Viking era.

The team’s results appear in the latest issue of the “Proceedings of the Royal Society.”

[Photo courtesy Alderney Society Museum]