VANCOUVER – Underwater archeologists with Parks Canada have returned from an expedition that took them below the surface off British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii islands as they searched for remnants of life dating back hundreds of years.
And while the researchers didn’t find the bounty they were hoping for — a trio of ships that went down in the late 1700s and mid-1800s — they say the trip gave them a better idea of what other cultural artifacts might be waiting to be discovered on the ocean floor.
“When you look at the big picture, although we’ve hit some of the signature sites from a historical perspective, there is a lot of territory to consider,” said Jonathan Moore, who returned last week after taking part in the expedition in the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve.
“I think we’re still in the early days of fully understanding the archeological potential of Gwaii Haanas.”
Moore was among four Parks Canada archeologists who set off on the Parks Canada research vessel Gwaii Haanas II earlier this month, along with a volunteer from the Underwater Archeological Society of B.C.
They spent two weeks in the Gwaii Haanas conservation area, located on the southern edge of Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, more than 600 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.
One of their goals was to visit locations where researchers believe three ships may have sunk: the Ino and the Resolution, which were captured by the Haida in 1794, and the Georgiana, a ship carrying gold prospectors that was captured in 1851. Almost all of the crew members aboard the Ino and Resolution were killed, while the crew on the Georgiana were held for ransom for nearly two months.
The researchers used sonar and other methods to look for large objects such as anchors, but they came up empty.
“We were able to get to what we’ve reconstructed as the lost locations of those wrecks, bearing in mind that they’re fairly sizable areas and that the historical record doesn’t give us an ‘X marks the spot,” he said.
The Gwaii Haanas area was once the site of industrial activity such as mining, fish canneries and salteries, and Moore said the researchers were also interested in discovering any remnants of those sites below the surface.
Moore said the team found remains of structures such as piers and wharves that were once connected to mining villages, fish canneries and other sites. He said Parks Canada researchers have examined some of those sites on land.
“In most of those locations, we were able to find traces of the occupation of those places,” Moore said.
“We’re looking to see if we can link shore structures with underwater remains. We leave the artifacts where they are. In a couple of instances, we’d raise an artifact to photograph it but we’d put it right back in its original spot.”
Moore said the trip covered only a tiny fraction of the Gwaii Hannas conservation area, which covers 3,400 square kilometres of protected ocean.
“In many respects, what we were doing at these sites was an archeological reconnaissance — the first look,” said Moore, adding that what the team learned this month will provide information for future research in the area.
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