Dead men do tell tales: Archaeologists ‘solve’ mysterious death on Bjørnøya with elementary clues, Sherlock


It could be the ideal setting for CSI Svalbard, except these deadly mysteries are taking considerable longer than 60 minutes to solve.

A team of archaeologists on Bjørnøya appear to have solved their latest caper this summer after unearthing a cliffside grave at Nordhamna. Wearing surgical masks and DNA-proof gloves, they slowly extracted a skeleton – while wondering if others were buried there as well – and reached a preliminary verdict based on obvious clues.

“The fresh and whole teeth means that this is a young person who has not lived long enough to wear them down,” wrote Arild Skjæveland Vivås, an archaeologist for The Governor of Svalbard who is the project’s field leader, in the team’s official blog. “The seams in the skull are also very visible. In humans, these seams are more pronounced throughout their 20s and are usually quite inconspicuous when approaching their 60s.”

Furthermore, there were few women on the island when it was populated by whale hunters during past centuries and all gender-specific tombs were for men, according to Vivås.

“Summing up, there are several factors that makes us currently tend to suggest it is a young Russian who is buried here next to the hunting station where he spent his last days,” the archaeologist wrote.

But it’s not quite time to roll the credits yet: the remains have been sent to Svalbard Museum, where they are awaiting more detailed analysis to confirm or deny the theory.

The grave examination is part of a first-ever project on the island to excavate and document graves and other ruins that are being exposed and threatened by erosion. Among the undertakings by the archaeologists during the past month was the analysis of a mass grave containing 14 bodies that appear to be murder victims.

Historical photos show some graves have already been lost to erosion, and the bones of humans and animals have been seen sticking out of the sides of cliffs that are crumbling away. Vivås noted the team’s next work will be examining other layers of debris vulnerable to erosion while searching for other graves also under threat.