Was Nunavut’s decision to refuse Ron Carlson permission to search for Franklin’s grave the right one? Yes, I think it was.
As you may know, Sir John Franklin made several expeditions into the Canadian Arctic, the last of which saw him and his crew die of starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning (from their cans of food) and scurvy. The expedition’s ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were trapped in the ice off King William Island in September 1846. According to a note found on the island, Franklin died on June 11th, 1847, though the exact location of his grave remains unknown, something that Ron Carlson desperately wants to change.
So, when the Nunavut Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth (CLEY) rejected his application for an archaeological license to search for Franklin’s grave he was understandably frustrated.
Generally speaking if you want to do any archaeology, you need a license from whichever government has jurisdiction. The license describes where you can work and exactly what limitations you are under. The conditions of the license are determined, in part, by your qualifications. You don’t necessarily need to be a formally-educated archaeologist, but you are usually expected to have had some training in basic procedures. One common restriction for the underwater archaeology projects in the St. Lawrence River that I have worked on was that no excavation could be done — we could only map what we could see sitting on the bottom without removing any sand, silt or weeds.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that deliberately searching for a site using remote sensing techniques such as side-scan sonar or aerial photography usually requires a license. If you are going fishing with your side-scan sonar and happen to notice a shipwreck, that’s ok because you’re using the sonar for a non-archaeological purpose. But if you set up a search grid and map the bottom of a lake using side-scan sonar for the purpose of finding a wreck then you need a license.
In Mr. Carlson’s case, he applied for a license to search for Franklin’s grave using airborne thermal imaging sensors, which was the appropriate thing to do. He’s a pilot so he flew north in expectation of being granted his license. Unfortunately, his request was turned down by CLEY, so now he’s up north without a license to do his thermal imaging.
So, he told them “fine, then I’m just going to do some sightseeing like I did in 2003 and go home”, his belief being that since he doesn’t have a license and has agreed not to use his thermal imaging equipment that he is “just a tourist” and it would be fine to take some pictures from the air. However, in an email from CLEY that he quotes in a blog entry, he is told “…..Your 2003 activities now that they have been detailed were fine and would not have required a permit. This year you are not being a tourist you are looking for sites 🙂 “. (Yes, there was a smiley in the email.)
He has also been formally warned that doing so could result in fines and/or imprisionment. I can’t really fault CLEY for taking this action, particularly after looking at what he’s been posting on his blog. In fact, one of his posts from yesterday is about something he noticed in one of the air photos he took while flying around the area, so he’s pushing things a bit, though it may be that the photos were taken before he was told “you are not being a tourist”.
While there are some archaeological projects that can be run by avocational archaeologists, a site as significant as Sir John Franklin’s grave is one that should have a fully-qualified professional archaeologist overseeing the project. Unfortuantely for Mr. Carlson, he is not a professional archaeologist, but if he put together a team including one or more professional archaeologists he might find himself granted a license. But he needs to remember that the government of Nunavut is under no obligation to grant him an archaeological license and if he keeps pushing the limits with his “tourist archaeology” having been warned that his chances of getting a license are going to be virtually zero.