Discovering Franklin’s Lost Crew

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The magic of forensic art

Who would have thought a young girl who couldn’t watch horror movies, would be putting a face to a skull in the future. Never in a million years did I think that girl could be me.

As time went by I realized I love art and I love helping people so becoming a forensic artist made perfect sense to me. It felt like it must be magic, to be able to put a human face to a skull, but with art and science combined it is possible. Forensic art is 75 per cent art and 25 per cent science.

Recap of four male faces from the Franklin Expedition. © Diana Trepkov

I started off working at the York Regional Police Service in the Forensic Identification unit. Eventually I left and started to train under some experts in the forensic art field.

I have always believed everyone deserves to be identified and hopefully with these facial reconstructions that I have completed, these Franklin expedition members stand a greater chance of that.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin left England and led a British search for the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, 129 people lost their lives on two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The ships became stuck in Canada’s Arctic ice and all members perished. This is one of the world’s greatest mysteries and has the highest death rate of any Northwest Passage Expedition.

Fourth reconstruction from the Franklin Expedition
I only had the crania to work with on this individual. The crania is the top part of the head that encloses the brain. The mandible was missing, that is the jaw. I started off by using a useful tool which is a custom eye template that was made by an instructor from the FBI. He gave this to me while I was studying facial reconstruction from members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Once I placed the correct position in the orbits, I slowly drew in the eye dimensions, as shown in image 2, which is called the circle template for eyeballs. The image with the underlying skull, image 3, is called the half frontal skull overlay.

As I followed the different bones of the skull such as his orbits, brow bridge, nasal aperture and the forehead of the skull, a face slowly appeared. The hairstyle I used is from that era as I wouldn’t know what his hair would have been like as only his skull was retrieved.

In my office, holding a photo of John Franklin, next to facial reconstruction of Person 2. © Martin J. Brown

I left him clean shaven and used clothing from the 1800s. The most important part of his face is his eyes, eyebrows and nose. Anything at all that triggers recognition, such as a feature that might look familiar to a relative, is important for any identification purposes.

Recap of four Male Faces from the Franklin Expedition
Identifying the members of the Franklin Expedition hasn’t been an easy task. The Government of Nunavut has been the leading land-based component of the Franklin Expedition investigation since 2008.

Since 2013, I have re-created these men’s faces in an effort to identify them.

These human remains have been returned to King William Island. We are hoping relatives of the Franklin Expedition members will submit their DNA and help with the identification process.

A special thank you to the exceptional team that I have been very grateful to be a part of: Dr. Douglas R. Stenton, Dr. Anne Keenleyside and Dr. Robert W. Park.