Coffins from Svalbard’s biggest graveyard saved from coastal erosion, offer clues to life in 1600s

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The remote and harsh setting often made life very hard indeed, but also meant Mother Nature took great care with the dead after they submitted to the elements.

Until recently.

The well-preserved remains of three men in coffins at Likneset were removed from Svalbard’s largest graveyard earlier this month and are now in cold storage at Svalbard Museum. The graveyard is on a coastal cliffside at Likneset on northwestern Spitsbergen, described as the heartland of whaling in the archipelago during the 17th and 18th centuries, but erosion had put the coffins in immanent danger of being washed into the sea.

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Snorre Haukalid, a cultural heritage advisor for The Governor of Svalbard, examines a grave on the edge of a cliffside at Likneset. Photo courtesy of The Governor of Svalbard.

“Previous studies have shown that it is whaler graves that can tell the most exciting stories,” wrote Arild Skjæveland Vivås, an archeologist for Norark, in a blog about the project. “In the Arctic the climate is cold and dry, and where the tombs were built on top of permafrost and have been frozen most of the year, which has resulted in unique preservation conditions.”

So while the wood on the first coffin removed was “soft and in some places completely pulverized” despite appearing fresh, many traits of the person inside were immediately obvious.

“Under the coffin lid lay a complete skeleton with dark blond hair on a bed of sawdust,” Vivås wrote. “We were somewhat surprised that there was not visibly preserved textiles. Earlier excavations at Likneset, and elsewhere in the area have uncovered everything from socks to wigs and hats.”

The preservation of such items for such a long period is considered largely unique to Svalbard and may offer clues to life throughout Europe during that era, according to project and museum officials.

There are at least 230 graves at Likneset, which was frequented by Dutch, English, Norwegian and other whalers. There were four archaeological investigations at the site between 1985 and 1990, and erosion on the five-meter-high cliffside has been monitored since 1998.

Most of the whalers apparently died of scurvy due to poor nutrition. While the modern visitors didn’t face that problem, they did have to cope with some of the other deadly elements such as polar bears and hazardous weather.

“The first morning we were visited by a lean and hungry polar bear in Sallyhamna,” Vivås wrote. “The next morning bear had wandered to the excavation field on Likneset and prevented us from going ashore. We we decided to keep our distance and let nature take its course. When we returned after four hours bear had wandered on.”