The ocean will always be a huge draw for those with adventure in their hearts. With an astounding 95 percent of the seas still unexplored, any serious contenders studying the depths can uncover a submerged, lost city or a strange fish that looks like an alien.
But Canadian researchers were still incredulous when their divers uncovered a shipwreck with huge significance. They weren’t thinking about treasures hidden inside. They knew this sunken vessel would give answers to a nearly 200-year-old question.
That question started back in the 1800s, when explorers competed to discover the fabled Northwest Passage, a valuable trade route that connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Arctic. People were willing to risk their lives looking for it.
The passage was found by a man named Robert McClure in 1849, but not before many of his crewmates died of starvation. However, only four years prior to McClure’s success, another mission met a curious end.
In 1845, Captain John Franklin was determined to find the route. He assembled a crew of over 100 men and brought along two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. They had no idea how fitting that last name would prove to be.
AMC – The Terror
The expedition started out on a high note. The crew was all excited for the adventure. They hugged their families goodbye and prepared for what they knew would be a years-long journey.
Renee Feret – Madame Solario
Back home in Britain, the friends and family of the crew waited with bated breath for their loved ones to return. Years passed and they heard nothing… until finally in 1859 a chilling note was found that gave some clues as to what may have become of them.
The letter in question was found on King William Island in 1859, and it exposed the dark fate: the ships had been abandoned in April of 1848, and Captain Franklin himself had passed away almost a year earlier, in June of 1847. But that wasn’t all…
The note was written in the same month the ships were deserted, and it also revealed that, by then, 8 other officers and a shocking 15 crew-members had also died, likely of starvation. This left 106 remaining men to fend for themselves in the lonely seas.
AMC – The Terror
This was all that was known of the ill-fated mission for hundreds of years, until 2008, when Parks Canada launched an expedition to find Franklin’s ships, both the Erebus and the Terror. What they found was bone-chilling.
The Erebus was the first ship to be located — in 2014 in Victoria Strait. Divers tasked with exploring the ancient wreckage came back to the surface with some significant details to report back.
Apparently, they’d found some remnants from the past onboard the Erebus: a bell made out of bronze, a 680-pound cannon (pictured below), medicine bottles, and buttons from uniforms. But at this point, the HMS Terror was still lost to history.
The archaeologists searched high and low for the aptly named ship, but it wouldn’t be until they received a tip from an Inuit crew member that they would finally locate the centuries-old wreck and discover the terrifying reality. It wasn’t at all what they were expecting.
Facebook – Sammy Kogvic
Sammy Kogvik, a man from Gjoa Haven, below, informed the team that he had been on a fishing trip in the area years prior and had spotted a “hunk of wood” amid the icy sea. This immediately set off alarm bells: could it have been the Terror?
Clevelander96 / WikiCommons
Unfortunately Sammy had no evidence of his find; he’d taken pictures of the strange sight on his phone, but he’d lost the device later that day. Still, the archaeologists immediately diverted course and headed towards the spot he’d pointed out.
It was there that they finally found it. The researchers could hardly believe their eyes. Sixty miles south of where they’d originally expected to locate the ship was what was almost certainly the HMS Terror. However, one bizarre detail stood out.
Although it was beneath 80 feet of ice cold water, the ship was almost perfectly preserved. According to Adrian Schimnowski, below, spokesman for one of the search parties, “If you could lift this boat out of the water and pump the water out, it would probably float.”
While the researchers were glad to have at last located what they believed to be the Terror, they still had yet to explore its watery depths. When they finally did, a collective shiver ran down their spines.
An unmanned vehicle went to explore the potential wreckage and found pantry shelves containing plates and a can of food, bottles of wine, and a desk with its drawers open. Experts were elated. The significance of the find went beyond its historical importance.
According to Meaghan Bradley, spokesperson for Parks Canada, “The discovery of HMS Terror would be important for Inuit communities and Canada, reflecting the ongoing and valuable role of Inuit knowledge in the search and making a significant contribution to completing the Franklin story.”
YouTube – Explore Canada
The Canadian government was especially proud of the achievement, with Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna stating, “This latest discovery will offer another unique and incredible opportunity for archaeological exploration and the sharing [of] Inuit history and culture with the world.”
Others were skeptical that a single shipwreck could have such a huge impact on history or a peoples. But for proof, all divers needed to do was point to a recently uncovered wreck a few thousand miles away.
Far away from the Arctic North, the coast of Israel in the Tantura Lagoon near Dor Beach was buzzing with excitement. The seemingly tranquil waters had a team from the University of Haifa itching to take a closer look. They were ready to change history.
Nautical archaeologists at the university’s Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies couldn’t believe the wreck, which was discovered first in 1976, was seriously studied by anyone. The area is a hot spot for scuba divers all over.
University of Haifa
When the initial diver discovered the wreck, he immediately told local authorities about the find. Unfortunately, the amateur explorer faced a huge problem when it came to the excavation, as most ordinary people would.
Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies
He didn’t have the experience or the financial means for a rigorous study. Of course, the country of Israel did, but for whatever reason, no one took any action until 2008.
N.C. Department of Cultural Resources
That was the year Deborah Cvikel, an author and nautical archaeologist who worked at the Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies, took charge to finally get the boat out of the lagoon.
Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies
Cvikel assembled a team of equally enthusiastic researchers and scientists to figure out once and for all exactly whom the mystery boat belonged to. But it wasn’t going to be easy.
Repair the Sea
Usually when a ship is found, there’s some kind of indication — whether it’s a marking on the ship’s side or particular artifacts — of the vessel’s owner. This, however, had nothing of the sort.
Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports
What the diving team did find, however, was a very well-preserved, double-masted vessel. From the look of it, the ship wasn’t too ancient, but then again, there really was no knowing until analysis was complete.
Repair the Sea
There were also plenty of artifacts on board, and many of them, much like the ship, were in pristine condition. The team recovered several ceramic bowls, glassware, eroded utensils, and even expired provisions.
Texas A&M University Conservation Research Laboratory
It was an amazing find that Cvikel couldn’t believe sat at the bottom of the lagoon for so long. Now that it finally had the attention it deserved, the team started bringing piece by piece into their lab.
Repair the Sea
The massive chunks of wood and metal were lifted out of the water by huge excavators, loaded into trucks, and then carefully placed on the lab’s tables for cleaning. It was an immense undertaking.
Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies
The crew meticulously washed all of the sand and sediment off of each chunk. After a thorough cleaning and careful look at the artifacts, the scientists realized the inventory might just hold the key to the ship’s origins.
Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies
There were several markings and letters printed on many of the broken pieces. The small splintered shards were of no use, but the bigger ones led to the first actual breakthrough of the investigation.
University of Haifa
Some of the intact ceramic bowls had a very specific lion motif, and the team connected the vessel to a company named Guichard Frères, which operated from 1889 to 1897. But Cvikel wanted to know more.
Evidence of whom the ship belonged to was still very much lacking, so Cvikel teamed up with a graduate student named Micky Holzman to comb through old documents from the wreck’s era. Then, it hit them like a brick.
University of Pennsylvania
Member of the famous Rothschild banking dynasty, Baron de Rothschild, actually had ties to an area of land right next to the lagoon. It was a Jewish settlement called Zichron Yaakov that he founded in the late 1800s.
The settlement is thriving today, but when it first began tons of goods were needed, so Rothschild purchased three ships to transport materials to and from the area. According to documents, only two of the ships were accounted for…
The Times of Israel
Based on this evidence, Cvikel and the team had a strong inkling the ship in the lagoon was Rothschild’s third undocumented craft. More tests will occur, of course, but at least they know the boat originated on Earth. Some researchers can’t even make that assumption.
The Swedish Ocean X diving team lead by Peter Lindberg and Dennis Åsberg didn’t expect to find much while treasure hunting 300 feet from the surface of the Northern Baltic Sea. After all, the water was freezing, dark, and difficult to navigate.
They were trying to find the remnants of an old shipwreck, so they were keeping an eye out for anything oddly shaped and weirdly colored. It was slow, quiet work on the sea floor…until the eerie silence was punctuated by a beep.
The beeping came from their sonar equipment, which seconds before had shown only murky blackness. Now, however, its screen was covered with a mysterious sight: A tall, mountainous structure surrounded by rock.
This turned out to be a canyon made out of stones, sand, and molten rock. But what really caught their eye wasn’t at the bottom of the deep, dark cavern — instead, it was just a couple feet nearby.
“We were really surprised and puzzled,” Dennis said of the new discovery. “We were thinking…this is not a wreck.” It was easy to verify Dennis’ theory that their new discovery wasn’t a shipwreck, but its true identity was more difficult to figure out.
Jeffrey L. Rotman/Corbis
If you’re an explorer worth your salt, you don’t immediately jump to extraterrestrial conclusions as soon as you see something unusual. Peter and Dennis, then, were quick to bounce around some logical explanations for the object.
The Instructor/Ocean X
First, they thought it was some kind of submarine left over from World War II, or perhaps an old battleship gun turret. But each time they referred back to the blurry sonar image, they couldn’t shake the feeling that it was something else entirely.
The object was a circle, about 200 ft. in diameter, with odd rivets and cracks across its top. The image they captured was so grainy, however, that it was difficult to see much else. So, they returned a year later…but this time, with back-up.
Mystery History/Ocean X
“It could be something really awesome that we’ve found,” Dennis said, and he hoped that “back-up” in the form of more advanced equipment would answer the biggest question about the object: What the heck it even was.
Ocean X Team
But they immediately encountered an issue. The problem wasn’t the clarity of the image, but the equipment itself: It just wouldn’t take a photo. According to the explorers, every time the cameras got close to the object, they would cut out completely…
Stefan Hogerborn, a professional diver with Ocean X, was baffled by the malfunctions. “Anything electric out there…stopped working when we were above the object,” he claimed. Though the team was at a loss, one group of people quickly came to the rescue.
Ocean Explorer/Ocean X
See, the sonar photo of the structure had leaked online despite Peter and Dennis’ claim that they wished to keep it “totally quiet.” It wasn’t long before the internet took in the object’s rivets and cracks and arrived at a sound conclusion.
“Yeah, definitely the Millennium Falcon,” one person commented on a news story about the discovery. It’s true that the object’s appearance looked strikingly like Han Solo’s beloved spaceship, but could it really be an object from outer space?
What really piqued the interest of the explorers wasn’t the size or shape of the object, but what it appeared to be made of: metal. After all, why would a 200-foot object made of metal be chilling on the ocean floor?
The Lip TV/YouTube
The theory that the object was actually metal and not a rock formation only intensified the spaceship rumors, so in order to ease the public and their own nagging curiosity, Peter and Dennis opened the mystery up to experts…and the experts had thoughts.
Scientist Charles Paull said the original grainy image was sediment dropped from a fishing trawler, a school of fish, or even something as simple as a pile of rocks. The spaceship theory, he claimed, is “curious and fun, but much ado about nothing.”
Another scientist, Göran Ekberg, agreed that “the finding looks weird since it’s completely circular…but nature has produced stranger things than that.” The most incinerating claim, however, came from an actual expert on extraterrestrial life…
Doubtful of Peter and Dennis’ motives, Jonathan Hill of Mars Space Flight Facility said, “Whenever people make extraordinary claims, it’s always a good idea to consider…whether they are personally benefiting from the claim.”
Still, Peter and Dennis had at least a little support: Geologist Steve Weiner claimed that, according to his own tests, the structure was not a geological formation. He was even quoted supporting one of the most outlandish claims…
The object, Steve claimed, was made out of “metals which nature could not reproduce itself.” Peter hoped this kind of support from Steve would solve the mystery of the sunken “ship” — and help his team go further than ever before with their research.
In 2019, Peter suggested that Ocean X may return to the object…with an entire camera crew in tow. With a TV series, Peter hoped more light would be shed on the object’s identity. As for now, they’re at least sure about one thing.
Howard Hall/IMAX/Deep Sea 3-D
“[There’s] something we do not usually find in nature sitting in the…depths of the Baltic Sea,” Peter concluded. Whether or not this is true is still anyone’s guess, but as any good explorer knows, the mystery is the best part of the expedition.
If they want to preserve their find, they’ll need to work quickly. The Baltic Sea is a hot spot for explorers. Swedish archaeologist Jim Hansson from the Stockholm Maritime Museum, for instance, received an unexpected phone call came from workers who found something rare in its waters.
A construction crew had to halt their renovation of a quarry in Stockholm when they came across a big surprise in the dirt. Like the Ocean X team, none of them could at first identify the mystery object, but it looked to be made of wood — very old wood.
Doubling Jim’s interest was the location of the quarry: it was on Skeppsholmen Island, smack dab between center-city Stockholm and the Baltic Sea. If you were to visit the island today, you would mostly come across charming tourist attractions. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Historically, Skeppsholmen served as a prime military location for Sweden. It acted as a waypoint where officials could send out troops and supplies as well as a line of defense against any powers attempting to invade Stockholm. In other words, it was rich with military history.
Flickr / Marcin Zajda
Jim and some of his colleagues ran over to inspect the construction site. As they surveyed the wooden beams lying deep beneath the ground, Jim was immensely grateful the workers hadn’t interfered any more with the object. He had a feeling this was something big.
In fact, Jim theorized this Skeppsholmen dig might connect to one of his recent findings. A few months earlier, he mounted an extensive underwater expedition in southern Sweden. This was no recreational dive.
On the dive, he and his team were the first humans in hundreds of years to set their eyes on the Blekinge. The Swedes built this mighty ship in the late 1600s while at war with Russia and Denmark. So what did this have to do with Stockholm?
As Jim unearthed more of the wooden artifact, he confirmed his suspicions. They were looking at a ship, perhaps one of the most important vessels in the history of Sweden. However, Jim knew he couldn’t get ahead of himself.
To determine the exact identity of the mystery vessel, Jim and the other scientists got down and dirty in the pit. Specific details within the ruins would tell them everything they needed to know.
Jim turned his attention to some of the best-preserved timbers. You could actually see the axe marks where the shipwrights cut and fit together the wooden beams! That wasn’t all that caught Jim’s eye either.
By taking just a small sample of the wood — small enough to not damage the overall vessel — they could figure out what time period the ship was from. Jim shipped the fragment off to the lab for radiocarbon dating.
Jim’s team came back with good news: the oak timbers were from 1612 or 1613, meaning the ship’s construction wrapped up a couple years after. Fortunately, the Maritime Museum had detailed records of all the major vessels built in Sweden.
This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology
Using the records and some other clues — including this ornamental copper plate — Jim surmised they’d found the famous Scepter. It seemed almost too good to be true. After all, it was the flagship of the greatest Swedish monarch of all time!
The tactical brilliance of King Gustavus Adolphus the Great transformed Sweden into a major European power back in the 17th century. He commissioned the Scepter to lead a fleet to conquer nearby Latvia. The ship never made it.
As it approached the Baltic Coast, the Scepter suffered heavy damage from a storm. It turned back to Sweden and never sailed on a major voyage again. But how did it end up beneath a historic island in Stockholm?
Historians could not find any record of a shipwreck in Skeppsholmen. However, Jim had a wild suggestion: maybe Gustavus sunk it on purpose! It was, after all, a regular practice for the Swedish navy to sink retired vessels to provide a foundation for new shipyards.
Now that Jim and his team unearthed the top deck of the famed warship, they had to decide what to do next. A couple individuals raised the possibility of restoring the Scepter. After all, there was precedent for such a course of action.
Historians salvaged another sunken 17th century ship, the Vasa, in 1961 and put it on display at the museum. The impressive restoration soon became one of the most noteworthy cultural sites in all of Sweden. Could the Scepter follow in its footsteps?
Unfortunately, Jim knew it was not to be. While the Scepter had multiple decks in its prime, none of them remained in good enough condition to warrant the restoration. The project would simply cost too much for too little reward.
Scientist Sees Squirrel
Nevertheless, Jim and his colleagues chalked up their discovery as a major victory. He explained, “It’s a really important find because the ship is from the generation before Vasa, so we can see the technical building methods that were used, and it can help us understand what went wrong with the Vasa as well.”
Twitter / Jim Hansson
In other words, the knowledge attached to an artifact is always more important than the object itself. Plus, it will certainly lead to even bigger finds in the near future. Who can say what other secrets Jim Hansson will uncover in his hometown?