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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

Research Postgraduates

Publication details for Professor Janet Montgomery

Mays, S., Ogden, A., Montgomery, J., Vincent, S., Battersby, W. & Taylor, G.M. (2011). New light on the personal identification of a skeleton of a member of Sir John Franklin's last expedition to the Arctic, 1845. Journal Of Archaeological Science 38(7): 1571-1582.

Author(s) from Durham


In 1845, an expedition, commanded by Sir John Franklin, set out to try and discover the north-west passage. All 129 men on this ill-fated voyage perished. Over the years, skeletal remains associated with the final throes of the expedition have been located on and near King William Island, Nunavut, in the Canadian arctic. In general, even a tentative personal identification for these remains has proved impossible. An exception is some skeletal remains that were recovered in 1869 and brought back to England and interred beneath the memorial to the Franklin expedition in Greenwich. In the 19th century, these were tentatively identified as of one of HMS Erebus’s lieutenants, Henry Le Vesconte, a conclusion that has been widely accepted in studies of the Franklin voyage. Renovations to the monument in 2009 provided an opportunity for scientific examination of the remains, and to re-evaluate the personal identification made nearly 140 years before. The current work, which is the first modern scientific analysis of a fairly complete skeleton associated with the Franklin voyage, describes the remains and the artefacts interred with them, discusses the pathological conditions present, and evaluates the personal identification using osteological techniques and isotope geochemistry. Results indicate that the remains are of an adult male of European ancestry. Although some writers have suggested that scurvy or tuberculosis may have been important causes of morbidity and mortality on the Franklin expedition, osteological analysis and, in the case of tuberculosis, DNA analysis, provided no evidence for their presence in these remains. Isotopic studies indicate that the personal identification as Le Vesconte is unlikely to be correct. From the isotopic results and forensic facial reconstruction, HDS Goodsir, an assistant surgeon on the expedition, appears a more likely identification, but the results do not allow a firm conclusion.