Rebuilding faces of the Franklin Expedition

Diana Trepkov
January 20, 2016
By Diana Trepkov
It’s one of Canada’s oldest missing persons cases. Two members of Sir John Franklin’s expedition sailed to the Arctic in 1845 and died in the attempt to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage — but who were they? I was asked to help answer that question by completing forensic facial reconstructions on the unidentified skulls. Discovered in 1993 by a team of archaeologists led by Douglas Stenton, Nunavut’s Director of Heritage and Culture, the skulls were in fairly good condition.

Two sailors who went missing during the ill-fated Franklin expedition could be about to be identified — 170 years after they and their crew vanished.

In 1993 two skulls found near where the crew of HMS Erebus died in 1845, were given over to renowned forensic artist Diana Trepkov. She reconstructed the dead men’s faces using pioneering techniques she has honed over 20 years. One bears an uncanny resemblance to a photo of crewman James Reid. Now scientists have issued an appeal to Reid’s descendants to come forward for DNA tests that will prove whether it is him or not.

Ice Master Reid was part of an expedition of 130 men who disappeared while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage in the icy wastes off northern Canada in 1845. He was a famed whaler of his time, was part of an elite unit who set off from England on two naval ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. But the expedition — led by the decorated war hero John Frankin — ended in disaster when the ships became stranded in thick pack ice after a year into its journey. The crew was never seen again with reports they turned to cannibalism to try to survive after abandoning the ships and attempting to walk to the mainland. None of their remains have ever been identified. Their story and fate have been much publicized in books, paintings, movies and song. It has also been the source of much speculation regarding the cause of their demise. Some pointing to predation, hypothermia and others to diet and lead poisoning.

On September 7, 2014 Erebus was finally discovered near King William Island in the eastern Queen Maud Gulf using a remotely operated underwater vehicle. Two months later the ship’s bell was recovered from the wreckage. The remains were found near to where they perished trying to trek to safety.

Anthropologist Dr. Anne Keenleyside gave the two skulls to Trepkov on behalf of Dr. Douglas Stenton, the Director of Heritage for the Territory of Nunavut Department of Culture and Heritage, as part of a project funded by the Nunavut government. The purpose was to complete facial reconstructions so they can help lead to an identification of the crew members.

Trepkov’s work has been published in the leading academic journal the Polar Record and featured in newspaper reports across Great Britain.

Dr. Stenton has led archaeological digs on sites associated with the 1845 failed expedition, said it could prove to be a breakthrough.

“We are not entirely sure what happened to the crew or where the rest of the bodies are,” Stenton said to a reporter from London’s Daily Mail.

“But, it is reasonable to suggest these two skulls were crew members. There are no guarantees Reid will be identified but it is very exciting. It would be great if his descendants came forward. It means we could carry out DNA tests that could be matched to the samples we have taken from one of the skulls.”

The other skull looks similar to Lt. Graham Gore but that has been brought into doubt because Gore died long before the crew began the trek to safety.

Dr Stenton says he got hooked on the calamitous expedition while at school and has spent years trying to piece together what happened.

The two state-of-the-art ships were heralded as ‘unstoppable’ when they embarked in 1845 under Sir John’s command. The experienced sailor had previously led expeditions to Australia and had fought at Trafalgar. He hoped to discover a lucrative sea-route that linked the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

After a freezing winter locked the ships to the vast ice floes, the crew are believed to have slowly succumbed to disease and starvation. Native Inuit hunters told tales of starving white men spotted in the freezing wilderness over the following months and years.

Letters from Reid, a former harpooner, to his wife in the lead—up to the voyage were published by National Museum in Adelaide in the early 1900s. In them Reid says he may be gone, ‘two years - it may be three or four,’ and it will be his last voyage. He adds: ‘A number of people think it strange of me going but they would go if they knew as much about ice as I know.’

He added he had insured his life for 100 pounds.

Pressed by Franklin’s wife, Lady Franklin, and others, the British Admiralty launched a search for the missing expedition in 1848. Prompted in part by Franklin’s fame and the Admiralty’s offer of a finder’s reward of 20,000 pounds, many subsequent expeditions joined the hunt, which at one point in 1850 involved eleven British and two American ships.

Several of these ships converged off the east coast of Beechey Island, where the first relics of the expedition were found, including the graves of three crewmen. The broad circumstances of the expedition’s fate were first revealed when Hudson’s Bay Company doctor John Rae collected artifacts and testimony from local Inuit in 1853. Later expeditions up to 1866 confirmed these reports.

Sourced and edited from files supplied by the Daily Mail — London, Parks Canada — Ottawa, The Polar Record, Diana Trepkov and Blue Line Magazine.

Rebuilding the faces of the Franklin Expedition

by Diana P. Trepkov

It's one of Canada's oldest missing persons cases. These two members of Sir John Franklin's expedition sailed to the Arctic in 1845 and died in the attempt to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage – but who are they?

I was asked to help answer that question by completing forensic facial reconstructions on the unidentified skulls. Discovered in 1993 by a team of archeologists led by Douglas Stenton, Nunavut’s director of heritage and culture, the skulls were in fairly good condition.

{Building the face of skull #1}

Figure 1: The procedure of developing a complete 3D facial reconstruction from the skull without the original mandible.

A: Lateral skull with a careful distinguished mandible and tissue depth markers attached. B: Frontal skull with tissue depth markers attached to landmarks. C: Lateral view showing clay, wooden splints, angled block for nose and block of clay to secure mandible. D: The oil base clay reconstruction showing tissue depth markers and prosthetic eyes.

The anthropological assessment was that the first skull had only the cranium and was that of a male. His estimated age of death was between 21 and 42 years old.

The cranium and mandible were connected in a normal resting position (Fig. 1, A and B). The width of the mouth is established by measuring the front six teeth. Clay is then added to form the mouth. Cotton balls are used to protect the orbits and nasal aperture.

The widest point of the nasal aperture is measured to determine the width of the nose. The anterior nasal spine on the skull shows that the nose would project with a slight upward lift as shown in (Fig. 1C). The progress of the clay reconstruction is shown in (Fig. 1, C and D).

lots more pics

Figure 2: Process shows the 2D and 3D facial reconstruction of the cranium.

A: The tissue-depth markers overlying anatomical landmarks placed on the lateral view of skull with face illustrated. B: Final drawing of the 2D lateral view, showing the slight upturned nasal spine, slight bump on nose and high forehead. C: Tissue depth markers overlying anatomical landmarks placed on the frontal view skull with full face illustrated. D: The finished 2D converted into a frontal portrait style drawing, showing approximation of craniofacial relationships in hypothetical case where the entire mandible is missing. E: The 3D facial reconstruction image from original full skull without hat and clothing. F: Completion of 3D frontal view facial reconstruction. G: 3D image of facial reconstruction wearing hat and clothing. H: Final 3D facial reconstruction, side view, with tissue depth markers covered by oil base clay to represent muscle, hair and skin.

Since many teeth were lost from their sockets post-mortem, clay was used to fill in the space. Highest quality prosthetic eyes were used and fit over the orbit and under the eyelid of the facial reconstruction (Fig. 2 E, F, G and H). The clothing was based on fashion research from the era. Final facial reconstruction sculpture (Fig. 2 F, G and H).

{Building the second skull)

Figure 3: The procedure of developing a complete 3D facial reconstruction from skull with original mandible.

A: Lateral skull, with matching mandible and tissue depth markers attached. B: Frontal skull view before 3D clay facial reconstruction. C: Lateral view showing clay, wooden splints, prosthetic eyes and clearly visible tissue depths to match skin thickness. D: Oil base clay covering full skull showing the beginning stages of a male face.

even more pics

Figure 4: Process showing the 2D and 3D facial reconstruction of the second skull with original mandible.

A: The tissue-depth markers overlying anatomical landmarks placed on the lateral view of skull with face illustrated. B: Final drawing of the 2D lateral view, also showing the Russian method of lateral nose projection with an upturned nasal spine. C: Tissue depth markers overlying anatomical landmarks placed on the frontal view skull with face illustrated. D: The finished 2D converted into a frontal portrait style drawing showing a broad jaw and unique forehead. E: The 3D facial reconstruction image from original full skull. F: Completion of 3D frontal view facial reconstruction with hat and clothing G: Angled view of finished face without navy hat H: Final close up 3D facial reconstruction, with tissue depth markers covered by oil base clay to represent skin. His eyes appeared to have a certain glaze, such as being in a daze.

The surface crania and buried mandible were in good shape considering the age of the skull.

The anthropological assessment was that the skull was of a male of American Caucasiods-European ancestry. His estimated age at death was 28 to 52 years old.

This skull is uneven, resulting in slanted features such as eyes, eyebrows, bridge of nose (where it is pinched), upturned nose and uneven nostrils and corners of the mouth (Fig. 4C, D, F, G, H). The bridge of the nose, between the eyes, is very pinched, therefore the skin is thinner and the shape in that area had a slight bump, which would have been apparent and so is reflected in the reconstruction (Fig.5A, B, C, D, F).

The nasal bone has a bumpy ridge on the left side (Fig. 5 B and D), and is very narrow in the middle (Fig. 5 B, F and H). The nasal opening is slightly uneven as the nostrils vary and are crooked, as the left nostril is higher than the right (Fig. 5 C, D and F). He has a broad jaw and high cheekbones. The forehead appears to be unique, rounded at the sides and a slant-flat look in the middle (Fig. 5 B and G).

The hairstyle and sideburns were popular in 1845. The eyebrows were sculpted accordingly and lined up following his brow bridge on the crania. Ears on both facial reconstructions were created as generic and sit behind the angle of the jaw; ears are usually estimated to be equal in length of the nose on a face.

To finish the face, the clay would be smoothed out. Forensic art is 75-80 per cent science and 20-25 per cent artistic ability.

A forensic facial reconstruction is a way for the public to recognize a face from unidentified skeletal remains. Fortunately, the skull gives many clues for individualization. I was excited to see the finished result as I slowly rebuilt these two faces step-by-step.

Facial reconstructions are used as an investigative tool that can help identify the unknown, along with confirming future identification arising from DNA analysis.

Who are these Franklin Expedition members? I hope we will soon find that out, as everyone deserves to be identified.

BIO

Diana P. Trepkov is a forensic artist, author and lecturer. Visit www.forensicsbydiana.com to learn more or contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 647 522-9660.

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