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Sounding the alarm about skeletons

Graveyard on Bjørnøya. Ancient burial sites is about to disappear due to erosion. FOTO: Snorre Haukalid, Governor of Svalbard

Sounding the alarm about skeletons

Graves in Svalbard have always eroded and been pushed up. But the process is now accelerating.

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19.01.2015 kl 10:50

Anne Karin Hufthammer, chairwoman of The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains (a.k.a. Skeleton Committee), said she is concerned. The reason is climate change is threatening to destroy hundreds of graves from the whaling era. Due to increasing erosion, many graves are in danger of tumbling down into the sea.

In a letter to The Governor of Svalbard, the Skeleton Committee explains the problem and requests a comprehensive plan for the graves. They want an assessment of the sites that are vulnerable and the skeletons at those – which have an especially high cultural value – moved to safer ground.


'An archive'
Many whalers were killed while hunting in Svalbard's waters. At Gravneset in Magdalenefjorden there are 130 graves dating from the early 1600s to the late 1700s. At Likneset in Smeerenburgfjorden there are an estimated 140 graves. A total of more than 1,000 graves are believed to be in Svalbard.

According the customs of the era, the dead were buried on land and therefore shorelines in many places became graveyards. The whalers were not buried naked, which is one significant reason why the graves are so interesting.

"Due to the cold and dry climate the contents of many of these tombs are very well kept," Hufthammer said. "They are a unique archive for the textiles and clothing that the whalers were buried in."

The issue is not new. Researchers noted during the 1800s Svalbard graves were being pushed up in and destroyed. Thor Bjorn Arlov, a senior research advisor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who has been to several Svalbard gravesites, said there is a vast concern.

"There has been a problem all along with heritage being lost due to natural forces," he said. "What is relatively new, and what gives the matter haste, are the temperature changes in the last decades. A warmer climate means that degradation processes is happening faster."


Gene bank
In addition to the information about fashion and textile production of the whaling era, the skeletons themselves are unique.

"We talk about remains from northern Europeans, and in some cases people from Mediterranean areas, where some represent small communities at a given time," Hufthammer said. "Perhaps some of them are more valuable than others because they are unique – and as a whole they are really unique. It may be that some skeleton represents the only prescribed genetic material left in the world from a small village in the Netherlands, England or Spain."

The Skeleton Committee manager said she is concerned another thing: That the world has changed.

"We will never get the same opportunity to study this history because our time does not produce a similar culture," she said.


Shouting a warming
Why is the letter to the governor is titled "Report on the need for excavations in Svalbard?"

"Excavation, including the relocation of particularly valuable relics, is an opportunity to preserve them," Hufthammer said. "But what we are primarily thinking is that there should be an action plan for what happens when one of these graves erodes. The Skeleton Committee wishes that we as a nation would have a reflective attitude about what will happen to the graves."


Excavation on Bjørnøya

At Nordhamna on Bjørnøya the sea has eroded sections of shoreline where there is a grave. A human femur sticks out in the day.

"We expect that more bodies have already disappeared into the sea as a result of erosion," said Snorre Haukalid, a cultural heritage advisor to the governor.

Haukalid praised the skeleton committee for contributing to the awareness of the many graves in Svalbard. He said he also strongly agrees with those who say valuable material is in danger of being lost and that the problem is not new.

"Early in the 1990s one case was worked, and the governor in 1995 was asked to monitor and identify vulnerable graves in Svalbard," Haukalid said.

The program started in 1999, but ended four years later because of problems. The method used (helicopter) was not gentle enough and lacked precision.


New program
The work was not done in vain. It established a priority list of 20 locations where graves in Svalbard are in danger of being lost. Haukalid said he believes new technologies can provide new opportunities.

"Today we have drones with GPS navigation," he said. "They are relatively inexpensive and do not create air pressure that is harmful to the substrate. In addition, they are so accurate that it is possible to take photos at the same location from year to year so you can compare and see the development."


A year of excavation
The governor has received permission from The Directorate for Cultural Heritage to excavate human remains on Bjørnøya.

The directorate stated it agrees the best approach is undertaking excavations in special situations such as the one on Bjørnøya. The permit emphasizes all materials removed from the tomb must undergo proper care and be documented in Svalbard Museum's historical magazine.

Last summer, a delegation from the governor's office inspected several cemeteries and determined the situation at Bjørnøya is not unique. Haukalid said he wants a new excavation program.

"Ideally, we would chose one location a year," he said. "But first we must create a priority list, because we can't save everything."


Translated by Mark Sabbatini

Nøkkelord

Se bildet større

Snorre Haukalid measuring old grave sites of Svalbard. FOTO: Asbjørn Hagen, Governor of Svalbard

Se bildet større

Burial sites nearby Jensenvatnet. FOTO: Snorre Haukalid, Governor of Svalbard

Se bildet større

The graves on Likneset are about to disappear in the sea. FOTO: Snorre Haukalid, Governor of Svalbard

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