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The faded sign is nothing more than a simple wooden board, a faint white hand painted on its center, the index finger pointing ahead. But mystery shrouds much of the story behind this 19th-century signpost: the direction it was meant to point, who painted it, or details of its journey into and around one of Earth’s most desolate places.

The direction post is an eerie artifact, one of many scattered relics left behind by English explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew during their final, disastrous 1845 to 1848 attempt to traverse the last unnavigable section of the Northwest Passage. It was found on Beechey Island, in what is now the Canadian Arctic Archipelago of Nunavut, by an 1850 to 1851 search expedition. No longer standing when it was found, it was impossible to determine what the wooden sign—riveted to a seven-foot iron spike—had been leading to. When it was planted it may have been urging searchers toward the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, Franklin’s icebound ships. Or it may have been placed to lead the way to Franklin’s grave. There’s no way of knowing. What is known is that all 129 men and both ships were lost, while much was left behind.

Adriana Craciun, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, has delved into the mysteries of the sturdy sign, and other Franklin artifacts. She’s run her hand over the rough iron of the post and seen the tattered Bibles, tinted spectacles, and rusted cans that remain from the ill-fated crew at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, where they’re housed.

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