Foto: Martin Bjørnplass

Skeletons on Svalbard

Summer excavations of whalers’ graves in Svalbard reveal blackened bones and blonde hair.

Text: Glen Jeffries,  «@GlenDJeffries» 

The characterful red building that has housed the Polarmuseet since 1978 began its life in 1830 as a bonded warehouse. The original beams of its wooden ceilings are now rubber-padded – they’re low, low enough to reward someone as short as me with the treat of ducking down – and the rooms have been filled with polar artefacts ranging from a restored trapper’s cabin to dioramas, maps, diaries and weapons. And a bear on its hind legs carrying a log.

At the back of “ROOM 2” of the museum is the grave and skeleton of a young man. We know this man was a whaler in Svalbard in the seventeenth century. He was excavated at Likneset, a burial site with more than 220 graves on the northernmost coast of Spitsbergen, in 1990. Last month a team of archaeologists returned to Likneset to excavate three more men.

Photo: Martin Bjørn Plass-Sysselmannen
Photo: Martin Bjørnplass

Men travelled to Svalbard from continental Europe in the seventeenth century to hunt whales. The whales, most often bowhead whales, would be killed and then the blubber boiled into oil for export home. It was a dangerous business as men fought the cold, poor diet and the occasional isbjørn. Some, not surprisingly, did not return to mainland Europe to realise their profits.

I spoke with Arild Skjæveland Vivås, an archaeologist at Stavanger Maritime Museum and part of last month’s four-person excavating team. Likneset translates as “corpse point”, and he told me “Likneset is not associated with any other activity than the graves, and there are other places close by with better ports”. I asked him why the community chose Likneset as their burial site. Perhaps, he said, the whalers sought a burial site away from their other daily activities. Alternatively, the site is visible from the high seas so it may have been chosen to remind the whalers of the perils they faced. More prosaically, perhaps nearby burial sites (of which there are a few) were for the exclusive use of whalers from other nationalities or trade houses and these whalers were pushed to the headland.

The whalers’ corpses on Svalbard are unique because the cold and dry conditions have largely preserved their skeletons and clothes. This, Arild wrote in his blog of the trip, means that: “nowhere else in the world is [there] such well-preserved clothing [worn] by ‘ordinary Europeans’ from this period”. The excavations teach archaeologists and historians about the textiles, materials and trade networks available to ‘ordinary’ folk in seventeenth century Europe. It is strange to think that these daring men are not to be remembered for their hunting but rather the ordinariness of their fashion. It’s the equivalent of today’s Mars explorers being lauded in 300 years for their Norrøna knitwear.

Photo: Martin Bjørnplass

So what did Arild and his team find this time? In one of the graves the deceased had been caringly laid on sawdust. His skeleton revealed the tell-tale signs of scurvy – bones blackened at the joints – similarly found in the earlier excavations. However, in those earlier excavations “many of the skeletons were found with hats pulled down over their heads or other types of fabric that cover the face”. There was a widely-held belief in Europe at the time that seeing the eyes of the dead would result in one’s own death within the next year. This man had blonde hair and no such hat. The remains of a wooden crucifix marked the head of the grave. There were also the “characteristic cairns” placed by the whalers atop the soil to protect the grave from being looted by hungry polar bears and foxes. The cairns at Likneset and other Svalbard burial sites vary significantly in size from grave to grave, and Arild considers whether this may have been a reflection of different cultures, a sign of particular respect for an important person or an indication of the number of persons buried in a designated grave. In any case, the image of a wintry headland at the top of the world speckled by crucifixes and cairns is a chastening one.

And as ever with the Arctic, there is a global warming angle here. The team had been monitoring the site since 1998 and decided these graves were soon to be lost to the erosion of the beach ridge. These three graves were excavated because they were threatened by the rising sea.

Photo: Martin Bjørnplass

So who is this man? More answers, Arild says, will likely be found when a fuller excavation of his skeleton happens in the fall. He – the skeleton, not Arild – has been helicoptered to the Svalbard Museum to await such a fate. A scientific report following the earlier excavations concluded that: “[t]he Likneset skeletons, however, differed from the other [skeletons found on Svalbard] in the presence of certain congenital and hereditary traits and anomalies”. The theory, then, is that the men buried at Likneset are all biologically related and derive from the same geographical area.

Arild has created a 3D model of one of the graves and an aerial photograph of the Likneset site taken from a drone (available here: so those interested do not need to venture to Svalbard to see the blackened bones and blonde hair. And next time you go to the Polarmuseet (entry is free for UiT students!) remember that the skeleton of the Arctic whaler you look down on at the back of “ROOM 2” is not only likely the relative of a seventeenth century man who just experienced a helicopter ride but also one of Arctic archaeology’s most important fashion icons.