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Dr. Anne Keenleyside Unites Northern Studies and Science to Bring History to Life

August 12, 2015

Craniofacial reconstruction captures unprecedented view of those lost on Franklin expedition

Forensic artist Diana Trepkov performing craniofacial reconstruction

History is coming alive at Trent University as the faces of doomed crew members of the Franklin expedition are finally revealed. Dr. Anne Keenleyside, associate professor and chair of Trent’s Anthropology department is writing a new chapter of Trent’s enduring story of exploration and scientific discovery in Canada’s North, combining modern detective work with historical intrigue that has captivated the country.

Dr. Keenleyside has been working with forensic artist Diana Trepkov, who recently performed craniofacial reconstruction of two members of the 1845 Franklin expedition from skeletal remains gathered in 2013 on King William Island, Nunavut.  

The remains, previously discovered and buried by earlier explorers in 1859 and 1879, are thought to be those of crew members who abandoned Franklin expedition ships Erebus and Terror following the 1847 death of Captain John Franklin. The H.M.S. Erebus itself was discovered with much publicity in 2014.

“By putting a face to a skeleton, an individual can, in a sense be brought to life,” states Dr. Keenleyside. “The reconstruction of the two crania allows us to see what these two individuals may have looked like.”

In this case, the reconstruction technique often used in forensic cases enables comparisons of the newly-constructed faces with existing photographs of expedition officers.

Although she cautions that positive identification can only be made using DNA and other evidence, she said, “The possibility of identifying one or more of the crew members on the ill-fated expedition would be of tremendous interest to academics, the general public, and especially to living descendants.”

As a bioarchaeologist, Professor Keenleyside analyses skeletal remains from historic and archaeological contexts to construct biological profiles including age, sex, ancestry, stature, and features such as trauma and pathology. She has worked on the Franklin expedition project since 1993, analyzing the remains of more than a dozen crew members recovered from King William Island, and has co-authored four accompanying papers on this research.

She is joined on the project by Dr. Robert Park of the University of Waterloo and Dr. Douglas Stenton, director of Heritage for the Government of Nunavut and a graduate of Trent’s M.A. Anthropology program, who also played a key role in the discovery of the H.M.S. Erebus.  

Prof. Keenleyside is grateful for the support she and Dr. Stenton have received from the Symons Trust Fund to pursue DNA analysis of some of the living descendants of the Franklin crewmembers.  Going forward she will also be submitting tooth enamel samples from some of the remains to Trent’s Water Quality Lab for strontium isotope analysis to identify the particular regions of the UK that the crew members came from.

She said, “This, in combination with the DNA evidence, may assist us in identifying these individuals.”

Prof. Keenleyside stated, “Northern Studies has been a significant research focus at Trent since its foundation, making it the ideal place to conduct this research. Our work exemplifies the multidisciplinary nature of this research and Trent’s continued fascination with the North and its people, history, and environment.”