The last of three coffins containing the remains of whalers arrived Friday at Svalbard Museum's back door. The Governor of Svalbard has just completed work to salvage the coffins, which were in danger of falling into the ocean due to erosion. The goal of the project is to preserve cultural heritage remains that may reveal more about Svalbard's earliest history.
One of the coffins was opened as the work at Likneset unfolded.
"It appears to be a man about 170 to 180 centimeters tall with long, blonde hair," said Snorre Haukalid, the project's leader. "He also had very good teeth, so one might want to imagine that it was a young man who died."
Accompanying Haukalid was Arild Skjæveland Vivås, who was the archaeological field manager, together with a polar bear guard and a boat driver.
26 years since the last
The three coffins will be refrigerated at minus 20 degrees Celsius at the museum. The plan is to examine them sometime around 1. October.
The last excavation at Likneset was 26 years ago in 1990. The governor also had a comprehensive monitoring program at various cultural heritage sites from 1997 to 2004, which was started up again in 2014. In order to monitor erosion in the coastal zones, bolts are set into the ground to measure the distance from those to the land's edge.
"Good map sketches of Likneset were made in 1984," Haukalid said. "And from then until 2015, a total of 2.2 meters has been taken by the sea. There are five graves that are now exposed, but we contented ourselves with taking the three coffins closest to the waterfront first."
There are 225 registered graves at Likneset. They date from the period when whaling occurred in the area during 1600s and the 1700s. Most of the whalers were Dutch who hunted in the northernmost areas, catching bowhead whales and boiling the blubber into oil.
"We know that it was the Dutch who practiced hunting in the north, but the sailors could be recruited from other countries," Haukalid said. "The graves can, for example, also contain Norwegians, Danes, Scots and Germans."
Results from previous excavations show most bones of their elbows and knees were discolored, almost black. That was apparently due to lack of vitamin C and suggests the vast majority of the whalers buried at the site died of scurvy.
Because whalers arrived in Svalbard in early summer they had endured a winter with few fruit and vegetables, and therefore were already deficient in vitamin C and highly susceptible to the disease.
Irony of fate
Whale meat is rich in vitamin C, but because the hunters had no tradition of eating whale meat it was thrown into the sea when the blubber boiled for oil was removed. The hunters' diet consisted of salted meat and bread they brought with them on the journey. Had they opted instead to eat whale meat, they could probably have avoided scurvy.
Furthermore, on some graves at Likneset there is scurvygrass, a herb rich in vitamin C.
"They basically stood on top of their salvation, but had no knowledge of it," Haukalid. said. "We know that Russian trappers later learned that one could eat scurvygrass to avoid the disease."
Svalbard Museum Director Tora Hultgreen said it was normal for ships to carry pine planks to make coffins. The whalers knew not everyone would return home – and they should shown great care when burying their dead.
"They were buried in their finest clothes, often with a silk scarf around their neck, and laid on a pillow of down," Hultgreen said. "Many of the bodies also had several layers of clothing and they were wrapped in blankets. Then moss was added before the coffin was nailed shut. It is touching to see that their friends took such great care and covered them well so they wouldn't be cold."
Stones were also placed on top of the tombs, probably to prevent polar bears or foxes from digging up the remains.
Most of the dead are also buried with a hat or cap pulled down over their eyes. Hultgreen said this was due to superstition. The living were simply afraid to make eye contact with the dead.
"They thought it would result in an accident and that they could even end up dying shortly after," she said.
Although most of the whalers died of scurvy, there were also probably many who drowned when the small rowing boats went out to harpooned bowhead whales, which can be about 20 meters long, Hultgreen added.
Because of Svalbard's cold climate, the textiles in the tombs from the 1600s and 1700s are well preserved. That provides unique insight into what kind of clothes the common people wore during this period, something not possible elsewhere in Europe. There are also other lessons those involved in the project hope to learn from the three graves.
"There is a lot of important material here and we hope to find more textiles," Hultgreen said. "In addition, there will be some analysis of the skeletons, partly to verify their age, gender and health. We are also considering applying for permission to do a DNA analysis, which may say something about where the men originated from."
She said the museum and the governor' office are cooperating well on the project.
"The governor's role is to take care of the material and make it available for research," Haukalid said. "That material can say a lot about the social and economic conditions in northern Europe."
He said that after examining the three tombs a decision will be made about whether the last two graves that are exposed will also be dug out.
"We are waiting for the results of what we have now received before we decide what we do next," Haukalid said. "There are so many graves along the sea in Svalbard and there is no goal to salvage everything. Therefore, we focus on what we believe and think is most important."
Excavating human remains requires applying for permission to The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains. The committee establishes ethical guidelines and sets strict standards for the remains of people to be treated with respect during archeological work.