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Release of new information about the 'Le Vesconte' skeleton - 16 March 2011

It is well known that two more or less complete skeletons of members of the Franklin Expedition have been repatriated to Britain. That identified as 'Lt. Irving' is buried in Edinburgh and that identified as 'Lt. Le Vesconte' was buried at Greenwich in the memorial there to the Franklin Expedition. Renovations to the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, which necessitated moving the memorial, provided an opportunity for a multi-disciplinary team from English Heritage to carry out a thorough modern examination of these remains.

I was uniquely privileged not only to be invited to the extremely moving Service held at Greenwich to mark the re-interment of the remains, but also to join the English Heritage team in their work.

The results of this analysis have now been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science in the paper: "New light on the personal identification of a skeleton of a member of Sir John Franklin's last expedition to the arctic, 1845" by Mays, Ogden, Montgomery, Vincent, Battersby and Taylor. You can download paper here but there may be a charge.

The paper provides a full description of the remains, gives an analysis of their pathology and evaluates the evidence for whose these remains might be.

Apologies for the charge if you have to pay it, but I would recommend any interested parties pay up and download the paper.

It is a shame that a conclusive identification could not be made - that will only really be possible if a positive DNA match can be made and there is no guarantee that that will ever be possible. It is interesting though that the team found absolutely no evidence for tuberculosis or scurvy - quite a surprise. The evidence relating to lead poisoning or exposure is ongoing and will be published separately. I'm not a pathologist so I don't really use the right language, but it seems that one contributor to this poor man's death was a tooth abscess. It is interesting that he had already had two teeth extracted before the voyage (no anaesthetic!) and had the famous gold filling, and it seems further tooth troubles led to his demise. That made me realise that although quite a lot of medical equipment from the Expedition has been found, no-one has ever found any dental equipment...

It is also mildly amusing that every fictional book about the Franklin Expedition always makes mention of 'Lt. Le Vesconte's gold tooth' as a characteristic of this officer. Well, this person did have a gold filling, but it was tiny and would not have been visible even with his broadest smile...

And who was he? Well, the results cannot be certain but the paper puts forward evidence which effectively precludes it from being Le Vesconte. The most likely candidate, on the basis of the evidence, is the Assistant Surgeon and Naturalist on board HMS Erebus, Harry Goodsir. This cannot be taken as confirmed unless someone can find a DNA sample - and that's going to be very difficult. It does make some sense, though, as Goodsir was the sort of person who would be likely to explore away from the ships, even with a raging toothache.... Hall, who located this skeleton, was told by his Inuit contacts that this was one of two skeletons similarly buried together. If one was Goodsir, one wonders who the other person was?

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