Martin Bjørnplass /The Governor of Svalbard

Whalers on Svalbard

“[W]hatever importance is attached to the discovery of these barren lands, the value of the discovery is eclipsed by that of the whale-fishery in the prolific seas adjacent; as it in a short time proved the most lucrative, and the most important branch of national commerce, which had ever been offered to the industry of man.”

So wrote British explorer, whaler and scientist William Scoresby about Svalbard, an archipelago in the frigid Arctic Ocean a mere 1000 kilometres from the North Pole.

Unfortunately, man’s industry was too, well, industrious. Within a century, a booming whaling industry had come and gone. All that remains of those whalers along the coastline of north-western Spitsbergen – the largest island in the Svalbard group – is imprints and ruins. Tumbled house walls, stray building materials, ‘blubber oven’ horseshoe shapes. And the bodies of those who were unlucky or weak.

Whaling in Svalbard’s oceans was a risky business. When the men returned to land from hunting leviathans on the stormy seas, they still had to battle the cold, a limited diet and the chance polar bear. Whalers’ cemeteries dot the coastlines, perhaps placed so conspicuously to remind those heading back from their labours of the perils of their existence.

Martin Bjørnplass /The Governor of Svalbard

Martin Bjørnplass /The Governor of Svalbard

One of the largest of these cemeteries, with over 225 identified individual graves, is Liknesset – which translates as ‘corpse point’. It sits on a headland, isolated by many miles from any former whaling station. This would not have been an easy walk to make.

Liknesset was partially excavated in the 1980s and 1990s. Last summer, a further excavation conducted by a team of archaeologists from the Governor of Svalbard took place. The whalers’ corpses on Svalbard are unique because the cold and dry conditions have largely preserved their skeletons and clothes. The excavations are therefore valuable for teaching archaeologists and historians about the textiles, materials and trade networks available to ‘ordinary’ folk in seventeenth century Europe. It is strange to think that these enterprising men are not to be remembered for their land and sea adventures but rather the ordinariness of their fashion. It’s the equivalent of the next decade’s Mars explorers being lauded for the spandex in their space suits.

Martin Bjørnplass /The Governor of Svalbard

Martin Bjørnplass /The Governor of Svalbard

And what did the team find this time? In one of the graves the deceased had been caringly laid on sawdust. His skeleton revealed the tell-tale signs of scurvy – bones blackened at the joints. His blonde hair still flowed. Above the graves, the remains of wooden crucifixes marked each head, and the characteristic cairns placed atop the soil to protect against hungry, looting polar bears and foxes hadn’t budged. Isn’t the image of a wintry, white headland at the top of the world speckled in black by crucifixes and cairns a chastening one?

It is especially chastening when one considers that the team had been monitoring Liknesset for nearly ten years and concluded that the excavations needed to happen sooner rather than later. A number of the graves were soon to be lost to the erosion of the beach ridge by the rising sea level.

More than three-hundred years later, another consequence of man’s ceaseless striving for industry – climate change – compromises even the sea-salted dead.

Hein B. Bjerk /The Governor of Svalbard

Hein B. Bjerk /The Governor of Svalbard