‘Murder and Mystery on Bjørnøya:’ Mass grave is real-life bone chiller for team trying to save exposed ruins

A common tale is the grave contains the bodies of those killed when a trawler sank in 1938. Except the cross and a chain surrounding are visible in a picture taken in 1924. Not to mention there are nearby graves and ruins dating back to the 1700s.

And bones – lots of bones – of both humans and walruses.

A team of archaeologists is trying to solve this riddle of what they call “murder and mystery on Bjørnøya” as part of a project to excavate and document graves and other ruins on the island that are being exposed and threatened by erosion. So far nothing’s been ruled out, including the possibility the bodies were brought there from another mass grave nearby.

One person commonly suspected of burying the bodies is Sivert Tobiesen, a trapper and captain whose expedition in 1855-56 took the first meteorological observations on the island. He “made a grim discovery” a few minutes’ walk east of where the current grave is, wrote Arild Vivås, the excavation project’s field leader, in the project’s official blog.

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Arild Vivås measures a grave, about three times the size of a typical one for a trapper, at Nordhamna on Bjornøya. It is believed to contain the bodies of 14 Russian hunters who died mysteriously. Photo by Dag Nævestad / Sysselmannen.

“He came across a mass grave behind a small stone wall,” Vivås wrote. Inside were 14 bodies, with clothing remnants suggesting they’d been burned in an attempt to cover up the crime.

“At the time, horror stories were circulating from the Russian Pomor trapping teams about murder, mutiny and crew who were left behind to a certain death,” Vivås wrote.

A leading theory is Tobiesen, anguished by the discovery, dug another large grave – and three times the size of a typical trapper’s grave – nearby at Nordhamna because he may have believed it would have been the Pormors’ natural burial site. He then refilled the original mass grave with walrus bones.

But Vivås states that, after days of pondering, project members are beginning to question the theory since there appears to be better “natural” site locations.

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Soil from a burial site is sifted in a search for objects that may provides clues as to who is buried in a mass grave on Bjørnøya and how they died. Photo courtesy of the Bjørnøya Meteorological Station.

A second theory is the captain of a Russian vessel dug the grave as part of an effort to lay claim to the area in 1899. The captain reported finding old Russian trapping huts and a Russian grave in the area, thus making the planting of a Russian flag and asserting Russian law permissiable. The researchers speculate that the captain, like Tobiesen, dug the new grave and reburied the bodies there are part of his effort to stake his claim.

Less likely to be accurate are the narratives declaring the bodies to be the victims of the shipwreck on Sept. 29, 1938, which appear to be based on the fact the current-date name of the site (St. Sebastian) is the same as the ship’s. Even without the photo showing the grave 14 years earlier, other physical evidence casting doubt is plentiful.

“The cross and the tomb are probably much older,” wrote a researcher at the Bjørnøya Meteorological Station in a blog post. “On site there are several housing ruins and tombs, for Russian Pomors who hunted walrus in the 1700s and perhaps into the early 1800s.”

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