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Solving a mysterious death on Bjørnøya

This skeleton buried in Nordhamna, Bjørnøya, appears to be a young russian male. FOTO: Dag Nævestad/ Sysselmannen på Svalbard

Solving a mysterious death on Bjørnøya

Archaeologists found answers and new questions in an enigmatic grave.

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07.08.2015 kl 07:58

Two bones sticking out of the soil, a cross and an old Russian hunting station at Nordhamna, next to the meteorological station on Bjørnøya, has long been a subject of curiosity.

Who died? Did it have anything to do with the hunting station? What were they dabbling with here in the inhospitable north?

There have been several theories about possibilities from an Englishman from the 1600s to more speculative thoughts someone might have arrived before the island in Svalbard was officially discovered by Willem Barents in 1596.

Threatened by the sea
After a four-week emergency excavation this summer to prevent more cultural relics from being consumed by erosion, the archaeologists say they believe they've come to the bottom of the riddle.

"Preliminary analysis shows that this was a young man from the White Sea area of Russia who lived and worked at the Russian hunting station," wrote Arild Skjæveland Vivås, an archaeologist for The Governor of Svalbard, in an e-mail to Svalbardposten.

The remains are now at Svalbard Museum awaiting further investigation.

"That will give us much more information about who he was," Vivås wrote.

Older pictures show three other graves have been consumed by the sea as a result of natural forces.

The archaeologists found no other human remains in the soil with the young Russian.

"The skeleton is therefore the last of which is preserved from the Pomor hunting station," Vivås wrote.

The hunting station consists of two buildings from completely different eras, with the hunters likely appearing with the walrus population.

After one to five years, there would be too few animals to continue hunting and so the first group left.

"After a certain time, maybe 50 to 60 years, the population rebounded and a new hunting team was sent out that built a new station next to the old one," Vivås wrote.

"Where did he come from? What did he die of? What did he see here?"


New answers, new questions

This year's expedition was the first purely archaeological investigation of a Russian hunting station on Bjørnøya.

According to Vivås, the work provided many answers, but also raised many new questions.

"We saw a sharp distinction where it appears that the older station had success in walrus hunting, while there are mostly bird bones and few walrus bones by the newer station. That could mean that the hunting failed and they were dependent on birds to get food."

Countless graves and monuments in Svalbard are at risk of disappearing forever every year, according to Vivås. He believes they should be able to tell their stories, which will require more archaeological surveys.

"One example is a tomb at Forlandet, where we think a 17th-century whaler from Svalbard's earliest history is," he wrote.

"Where did he come from? What did he die of? What did he see here?"


Translated by Mark Sabbatini

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