In 1845, British Royal Navy officer and explorer John Franklin led more than 100 men on a quest to find a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But they never completed their mission; in 1846, their ships — the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror — became trapped in ice near King William Island in northern Canada.
The weeks and months that followed were grim. Many of the crewmembers died of some combination of exposure, starvation, scurvy and lead poisoning. Some may have resorted to cannibalism. Search parties looking for the missing crew turned up empty, though a few graves were later found. The fate of the ships, meanwhile, remained a mystery until this past September.
Since 2008, Parks Canada led six searches for the sunken vessels. The agency finally succeeded this year, after capturing sonar images of a wreck in the eastern part of the Queen Maud Gulf.
Underwater archaeologists dove to the shipwreck seven times over two days during the so-called 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition. They took photos and measurements of the wreck, and during the last dive, they recovered the bell. After reviewing the data they collected during that intensive investigation, Parks Canada officials felt confident in saying they had found the HMS Erebus.
“The locating and identifying of this ship goes a long way [toward] solving one of Canada’s greatest historical mysteries,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement at the time.
The bell is clearly marked with the Royal Navy’s broad arrow symbol, and the date 1845 is also embossed on its surface.