Nothing less than a treasure trove of Europe's textile history is hidden at Likneset. Now three exposed graves will be investigated.
Archaeologists working for The Governor of Svalbard are getting ready to examine the three graves being eroded away by the sea.
About 225 trappers were buried at Likneset ("Corpse Point") in Smeerenburgfjorden during the 18th and 19th centuries. Due the permafrost and dry climate, a lot of the textiles are preserved.
"We applied to The Directorate for Cultural Heritage for an exemption from the conservation provisions of the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act just before Easter and are expecting a reply will come soon," said Snorre Haukalid, an archaeologist and leader of the project. "The project is seeking to make emergency digs at three protected cultural heritage sites."
The work is scheduled to begin in late July and the archaeologists say they are looking forward to getting started. With the exception of an excavation project on Bjørnøya last summer, it has been many years since a similar archaeological dig have been done in Svalbard.
"From previous studies we know that there are textiles there," Haukalid said. "Nowhere else is work clothing from 1600s and 1700s so well preserved. Those clothes tell a lot of history."
In European museums it is mostly royalty and priests' clothes that are preserved. It's also known the Dutch and the other nations engaging in whaling cared for their own dead and laid down a lot of work before their final journey. The most common cause of death was scurvy, which is documented via discolored knuckles.
The hunters were buried in their clothes, and during cold periods they often wore several layers of wool and homespun cloth. They had long knitted socks, warm headgear, gloves and perhaps a coat. The graves are made of pine planks, the dead have a small cushion under their heads, and there are layered shavings or sawdust in coffins to make the final resting spots a bit more comfortable.
"This is a treasure trove for Europe's textile history," Haukalid said. "Clothes for ordinary people in the 1600s are found only in such tombs where the permafrost preserves them."
By comparison, there was no biological material left in tombs the governor's archaeologists excavated on Bjørnøya last summer. In addition, many graves further north in Svalbard are vulnerable to climate change and the sea eroding inward into the soil.
"The vast majority of graves are located along the waterfront and at Likneset the edge is 8.9 meters high," Haukalid said. "There is little one can do to secure the area besides Ready for a historic textile hunttaking care of the contents of the tombs before they end up in the ocean."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini