This year I finally had the opportunity to attend the Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia’s (UASBC) annual Shipwrecks Conference. This group does a large amount of work in the province of BC, cataloguing and surveying wrecks and archaeological sites. Primarily a lay organization, it does have a number of academics on staff, and strong ties to the archaeological world in BC via universities and industry. As a diver who went back to school specifically to become an underwater archaeologist, it was an amazing experience. This year’s theme was the arctic, unsurprising given the discovery of HMS Erebus in 2014, and the ongoing work on that amazing and historic wreck. Speakers covered material as diverse as the Canadian Coast Guard’s arctic research cruises, how the oral tradition of the Inuit aided in the search effort, sonar operations, the history of the Canadian Arctic and the RCMP’s role there in the past, and of course, the actual dives on HMS Erebus themselves!
The presentation on the Canadian history in the arctic was definitely RCMP centric, and not without good reason. The RCMP played a large part in early sovereignty efforts, and in starting the ongoing effort to map the area accurately. The presentation was filled with interesting historical stories about the somewhat less than orthodox methods of law enforcement used, the perils of long term living in the area, and what happens when you accidentally burn most of the post down. While not specifically about shipwrecks, it did help paint a picture of the early zoology, botany, and archaeology of the region, which was often done by RCMP members as an extra duty or out of personal interest.
This connected well with the presentation on the Coast Guard’s arctic research cruises that occur annually. The main take aways I got from this were that the effects of climate change are going to affect the Canadian Arctic heavily. Mapping and cartography are constant concerns, as the area is changing constantly, necessitating the constant repair and movement of navigation beacons and upgrading of maps to try to keep the increasing traffic flow through the area safe. The capabilities of the research vessels were quite impressive, as was the confidence of the Coast Guard Captain giving the presentation.
The search for HMS Erebus and the oral traditions of the Inuit are intimately joined, but not in the manner in which popular media or recent narratives have implied. As it came out, it wasn’t a case of the Inuit pointing to the site of the wreck and saying “it’s there” and being ignored by tacitly racist researchers who wasted time and effort searching everywhere else. The oral traditions came largely from transcribed discussions, and the inaccurate translations and distance guesses therein, of an American who interviewed the Inuit in the area several generations after the Erebus and Terror went missing. What it did do was narrow the search area down to a few hundreds of square kilometres. The presenter was honest when he said that “everyone was right” when it came to the search area and actual locations of the wreck found. Unfortunately, some people decided to take it in a different direction.
Hand in hand with the anthropological and historical efforts in the search came the technological ones, a combination of good old fashioned Mk I eyeball searching by helicopter and the, to me all too familiar, joys of a side scanning sonar search. The sonar presentation didn’t go into the archaeology much, but it was a beautiful example of how much technology can advantage archaeologists, and the images from the actual find on the Erebus were outstanding. Literally any doubts of questions I had about my sonar experience having solid applications in archaeology were laid to rest during this segment.
As far as diving and archaeology combined, the presentations by Marc-Andre Bernier, the Director of Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service, were by far the best. All the other presentations set the stage and built the background for this, at least to me! Parks Canada has a long, and internationally distinguished. Underwater archaeology in Canada truly took off with the excavations and work in Red Bay, and Parks Canada has been at the sharp end of underwater archaeology ever since. The actual work on HMS Erebus required a lot of preparation, including getting Parks Canada divers certified as surface supply divers under DCBC, and collaboration with both the Royal Canadian Navy and the USAF. It was outstanding, and informative.
I’m glad to say that I finally managed to attend the UASBC Shipwrecks Conference, as it was both a fantastic educational opportunity and a great chance to meet with archaeologists in the field I’m working towards as I enter the second phase of my educational plan. The presentations were top notch, the dinner was excellent (I may have consumed too much smoked salmon), and the people were great.