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Discovering a possible female whaler

Elin Brødholt, an osteologist, brushes the skull of a man in his 30s. Per Holck, a professor of anatomy, studies a bone as Katja Eklund from Svalbard Museum records all the findings. FOTO: Kristian Müller Andersen

Discovering a possible female whaler

One of the three skeletons extracted from Likneset this summer may be a woman.

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04.11.2016 kl 09:56

On the second floor of Svalbard Museum are two of Norway's leading analysts of human bone material. Per Holck, a professor of anatomy, and Elin Brødholt, an osteologist, have spent two days studying the remains of the three whalers excavated at the beginning of August this year.

"This is very interesting,"Brødholt says, showcasing the pelvis of the one of the skeletons. "We cannot determine if it is a woman or a man."

A woman?
The skeletons are well preserved because of the cold climate, and as a result it it is usually easy to determine their sex on the basis of size and shape. Bones will generally be larger in men, and there may be some feminine or masculine traits.

"The pelvises, for example, are much different among woman and men normally," says Brødholt, showing how those of women are usually wider than men. "But here one side of the pelvis has masculine traits."

Thin legs
The knuckles of the skeleton are smaller than the other two and smaller than what has been found in other whalers' graves. According to Holck and Brødholt, the legs are thin. They discovered only small muscle attachments, suggesting the person was not particularly strong.

"Then you might ask yourself: why would such a thin person be whaling?" Brødholt says. "What function did he or she have? "

Both Holck and Brødholtsaid say they think that from a logical point of view the skeleton ought to be a man, in which case it would be a frail person 20 to 22 years year old, but they are open the the idea they may have found something special.

"We cannot rule that out and will write that it might be a woman," Brødholt says.

The other two skeletons are probably of men 30 to 35 years old. The experts say they see clear signs of poor diet with all three and they all suffered from a lack of vitamin C. All three had different degrees of scurvy, but that was not necessarily their cause of death.

Both men excavated had dental problems.

"Here we see that he has two holes in the row of teeth on one side and one on the other. He has smoked a clay pipe on one side until he got hurt and then switched sides," explains Brødholt, holding the upper and lower jaw together so that the holes become apparent.

"The second man had gotten teeth pulled out, perhaps with pliers," says Holck, noting they discovered loose root tips broken off.

A desire for textiles
Prior to the study, there was a strong desire to find textiles because they may have revealed something about how the whalers were dressed in the 1600 and 1700s. This was not as successful as the researchers hoped for. Svalbard Museum Curator Sander Solnes says wool is the fabric that holds up best.

"We found a pair of long, knitted woolen stockings in one of the graves," he says. "We'd love to have found more, but they may have been buried without clothes or they may have used flax, for example, which decays relatively quickly."

Governor will determine
The Governor of Svalbard will determine if further research will be done on the skeletons, which would require submitting a request to the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage. Those at the museum are in complete agreement they want a DNA analysis of the bones of the skeleton they have not determined the sex of.

"If that is a woman, it will be the first time we have found one among these whalers," Solnes says.

Snorre Haukalid, a former archeologist for the governor, recently resigned and Lise Loktu will take over the position on Nov. 28. She says this is an important and exciting project they will clearly follow up on.

"I must first familiarize myself with the results before we can make a decision whether to apply for further DNA analysis," she says.

Se bildet større

The person with unclear gender wore long, knitted woolen socks in the grave. FOTO: Kristian Müller Andersen

Se bildet større

Holes in the teeth clearly show this man smoked a pipe frequently. FOTO: Carina Knudsen

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