gordon.dewis.ca - Random musings from Gordon


Was Nunavut’s decision to refuse Ron Carlson permission to search for Franklin’s grave the right one? Yes, I think it was.

July 12, 2011 @ 00:12 By: gordon Category: Current affairs, Heritage

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.

7 Responses to “Was Nunavut’s decision to refuse Ron Carlson permission to search for Franklin’s grave the right one? Yes, I think it was.”

  1. Paul Tomblin says:

    I don’t understand why you need a permit to take pictures from the air. Of course, if he were to then land and go walk over to one of those sites that he found from the air, there is the danger of disturbance and damage, but what is the harm of taking the pictures?

    • gordon says:

      Running an aerial survey with the goal of identifying cultural heritage sites is archaeology. To conduct archaeology, you need to have a license. In this case, he does not have a license (yet, anyway).

      It is not always necessary to be a fully-qualified archaeologist in order to obtain a license, but more authorities will want to see a plan based on standard archaeological principles. (For example, there are many ship wrecks in Ontario waters that have been surveyed by divers who are avocational archaeologists and who applied for a license.) For high-profile sites, such as Franklin’s grave, I expect that they would want to see a more comprehensive plan with oversight from a qualified archaeologist, which it doesn’t sound like Mr. Carlson has (he’s not an archaeologist himself).

      If there’s ever doubt as to the qualifications of an applicant or their plan, a responsible authority will defer issuing a license until the doubts are cleared up or deny it altogether . I do know that one thing considered is the track record of the person with respect to following the laws. If an applicant has a history of not respecting the laws and ethics of archaeology, the likelihood that they’ll be given another chance decreases.

  2. I think they’re wrong.

    If he is not causing any physical damage, and not violating flight or airspace rules, then it shouldn’t matter what he’s doing from the plane as far as “archaeology” is concerned. Basically, if he’s not actually touching anything, I think he should be good to go.

    Technically, he’s doing archaeology if he’s in the library studying maps and poring over old texts… are they going to arrest him for that too?

    I understand the need to licence intrusive and potentially destructive archaeology. But aerial photography is neither intrusive nor destructive.

    My guess is that he wasn’t able to pay a sufficient “processing fee” or some such thing.

    • gordon says:

      I suspect that his request for a license may have conflicted with the existing multi-year expedition being lead by Parks Canada. Typically, licenses are not issued for the same thing to different people.

  3. ron carlson says:

    Hello all. Great input Gordon, nice work. You are correct on all points, well thought out.

    To further and clarify one subject point: I did request clarity from CLEY ahead of time on definition of “tourist flying”. After receiving no response from CLEY to that question (not an accident), all I had to go on was that because my prior work in 2003 (photographing graves on the ground on KWI), was seen as “OK” then, in CLEY’s 2011 email opinion to me (yes, Julie Ross did have a smiley in her note, just quoting correctly)….then it would be OK to fly around there and just see some sights like anyone else.

    The core of it all really is the pattern of denial to all qualified applicants, except Parks Canada, dating back to since I left in 2003. Procom, Woodman, myself and maybe others, having teams that were very equipped and qualified (my permit is two phases, with the second phase with class II archeologist).

    So based on that, as far as chance decreasing for future permit approvals, that is probably a moot point.

    Have no problem if Canada wants to assert ownership of all Franklin related searching and wants no help. That is Canada’s right. But then the real question is” Why have a farce application process”. Forget about me. What about all the others before me?

    • gordon says:

      I’ve talked to some of the people who have been involved in the Franklin searches over the last few years and one impression I got is that a few years ago there were some problems with a foreign team that was searching alongside the Canadian team. I’ve been wondering if that has been one of the factors hindering your application and the others you’ve mentioned.

      Have you thought about contacting the Parks Canada team and seeing if you can work with them by flying your sensor and sharing the data with them?

      • ron carlson says:

        Hi Gordon,

        Conflict. It could be so. However my work was only over land. No real conflict there. Unless it’s all one big umbrella, and only CLEY could answer that. I do know of certain other over land work, by others, which has also been turned down.

        On contacting the team: I did invite any and all with CLEY or their team, and also went so far as to invite Julie Ross, who is an archeologist, to join me. Answer “No”. And not just me. I guess one could also infer by that, if there was any intention for me to coordinate efforts on their team, I was on board.

        I have also learned of late from others that they do not want any volunteers or teammates, even with new ideas or equipment and innovative techniques. But when you apply, they do go to great lengths to obtain not only all the details, but the rational. Then a pattern of using those ideas the following year.

        That’s the pattern that I have noticed since I was there in 2003. A little background for everyone:

        At that time, the government wasn’t at all as protective or touchy about any of the Franklin work. Only until after I had left with my zodiac boat and side scan sonar from KWI that year, it seemed to change. Maybe coincidence, maybe not. Then in 2004 / 2005, the person I had hand picked from Gjoa Haven, and brought into my work and shared my ideas (Louie Kamookak) responded by cutting off communications with me, and then started the permit process himself for the present searching with the government (on record). I just happened to see his application online back then by tapping a search engine on him, and it all added up to the past several years – these subsequent annual government sonar activities.

        No sore feelings here. That’s why I “moved on” to an approach on Franklin’s tomb.

        On the ship(s) – I hope they make a big find. It would be a breakthrough for all. It would be awesome if they are successful and to finally find one or both of the ships. And if Canada received the credit, all the better. This is Canadian sovereign territory and you all deserve it.

        But the final blow was being there, being told by CLEY “waiting for Gjoa Haven”. So I went to Gjoa Haven then, and was successful, then notified CLEY with the good news (I thought they would be happy too) then they within hours rejected me. Why not just say “NO” to begin with.

        I just didn’t like the feeling that I was most likely purposely misled. That isn’t necessary – for anyone.


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