Archaeological fieldwork at Andréenäset, Vitön, Spitsbergen – a preliminary report
The Andrée Polar Expedition, consisting of S. A. Andrée, Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel, left Danskön, Spitsbergen, on 11 July 1897. The goal was the North Pole and a possible six-day polar transect to the Bering Straits. Their hydrogen balloon, the Eagle, remained airborne for 65.5 hours, after which the three men walked on the sea ice, ultimately reaching White Island at 81°05,0’N 31°26,2’E on 5 October 1897.
After this point only partly legible additions were made to their diaries and logs, and no photographs have been preserved from their camp. Nils Strindberg evidently died first and was buried with stones in a small rock crevasse. Andree and Knut Fraenkel died unburied in and next to their small tent, which abutted a rock outcropping about 200 metres from the shore. This campsite was discovered 33 years later in 1930 by another expedition, sailing on the sealer Bratvaag. They recovered the bodies of Andrée and Strindberg and much of their equipment. Several weeks later the Swedish journalist Knut Stubbendorf arrived at the site and recovered more finds and the remains of Knut Fraenkel. The bodies were cremated in Sweden and the artefacts reside today in the Andrée Museum in Gränna, Sweden.
The investigation plan
A preliminary 1998 mapping and survey of the Andrée expedition camp provided the incentive and rationale for further documentation of the site and its remains. Considerable traces of fibres, clothing, straps, cords, ropes, wooden and bamboo fragments, bone, metal fragments and small objects were visible on the site surface. A metal detector survey was carried out as well and compared with the sketch map that had been prepared by the site discoverers in 1930. Stray finds were also found some distance from the camp and a wider find survey was deemed necessary. Of special interest was the discovery that the tent floor was still frozen and clothing and other debris were embedded in the ice.
The plan for 2000 encompassed detailed mapping and in situ photography of finds and features, soil prospection and sampling of deposits from the frozen core of the tent site.
It was recommended that the follow-up investigation be based on several hypotheses:
- Soil prospection could be used to test the hypothesis that Andrée and his two colleagues, Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel, had survived on the island for some weeks or more. Soil phosphate, in particular, but also magnetic susceptibility, would reflect longer site use. An additional scientific objective of this study was to obtain information about the basic chemistry of newly deglaciated soils and the imprint of human presence in this kind of terrain.
- Recovered frozen deposits, including soiled clothing and seal meat, could be used to test for bacteria or other substances that could east light on the cause of death of the three men. The hypothesis that the men died of botulism, rather than trichinosis, could be tested. Even finds of human bone could be used for analysis, including heavy metal traces and DNA.
Finally, an overall objective was to produce an accurate map of the site as a foundation for site preservation and management. It is argued that the Andrée site, like many other similar historic sites in Spitsbergen, is being affected by tourism. This is ultimately a matter of cultural resource protection.
The Origo arrived at Vitön on 29 August after a ca. 44-hour cruise from Longyearbyen. Our equipment bad been sent north months earlier, and was now transported ashore using zodiacs. A field tent was erected near the site to provide some wind protection and storage. Unlike in 1998, we soon discovered that the area adjacent to the rock outcropping, where the majority of the site deposits were found, was covered by a layer office up to 70 cm thick in places. We used shovels, picks and iron bars, very much as the original discoverers had done in 1930, but to little avail. Only the outer edge of the ice could be removed and two narrow trenches excavated to ground level. The goal of careful excavation and sampling was simply impossible and would have to wait for a future field season.
Using a known datum point having an elevation of 5.39 m.a.s.l, we set up our surveying equipment and initiated a very detailed three-dimensional mapping of the area. Our laser total station could record 2500 elevations and co-ordinates per day in all directions and at distances up to 1500 m. Using this instrument we were able to map the entire site surface area down to the shore. A smaller three dimensional map of the site area is shown here. Our map shows the topography of the camp, and the three crosses indicate where the bodies were found. The distinctive cement block monument erected over the site is shown as a black square. The ice or the heavy snows, which came the next day, did not prevent the execution of this aspect of the project.
On 30 August, a terrific storm hit, preventing us from even going ashore. Snowdrifts now covered much of the site area and a cold northerly wind forced working temperatures down to minus 20 degrees centigrade.
Work on the map continued on 31 August, and Johan Olofsson, from the Environmental Archaeology Laboratory in Umeå, carried out the soil survey. Three presumptions had to be fulfilled for the survey to be successful:
- Enough soil had to be present to enable sampling of the site.
- The ground had to have thawed enough to permit sampling.
- Due to a lack of comparative studies of similar sites, a new theoretical basis would have to be established for interpreting the samples.
Movement of material in the soil horizon due to freezing and thawing is of considerable importance and could affect interpretation. Since almost all organic and phosphate-containing materials in this environment were brought to the site by humans or animals, a relative baseline must be established for interpreting our site and these deposits.
The first two presumptions were partially fulfilled. Enough soil was present to enable sampling of most of the site, and the ground, although partly frozen, could be sampled to a depth of ca. 10 centimetres. An area of ca. one hectare was investigated. The results of these 200 on and off-site soil samples will be published in the spring of 2001.
The area around the site, extending ca. 200 metres down to the shore and a kilometre to the ice edge, could not be surveyed for artefacts as planned. In spite of this, two remarkable new finds turned up. While standing polar bear watch, one of the Polar Research Secretariat’s field experts, Janne Johansson, found a bone which appears to be a human middle tarsal bone. Located on a rise behind the camp it is most likely a bone from Andrée or Fraenkel whose bodies were badly damaged and scattered by polar bears. This bone may be one of the few remaining physical traces of the three men, and as such is a potential source of information about their deaths. DNA could be used to determine the exact identity of the individual if living relatives of the two men can be found today.
The second artefact was situated some 200 metres to the east of the site and was found by the Nova film team. They found two halves of a wooden yoke used to pull the sleds, evidently discarded where it broke in October 1897. Two other identical yokes are on display at the Gränna museum.
Summary and conclusions
The archaeological investigation of the Andrée site rendered much new and valuable information. The site has now been accurately mapped and a soil prospection study has been initiated. The premise that more artefacts are to be found in and around the site was proven correct in spite of the terrible working conditions and snow cover. There is every justification for a follow-up study to complete the documentation and analysis of this famous and well-visited historic place.
The Andrée site represents a growing problem in the Arctic: the impact of tourism on the fragile Arctic environment. Although very isolated, this site is visited every year by numerous tourists. On our arrival on 29 August we could see literally hundreds of human footprints in the sandy soil. Janne Johansson remarked that it looked like a reindeer herd had just passed by. These visitors inadvertently walked all over the most sensitive surfaces, possibly with great respect, but nevertheless damaging the delicate site deposits. Many objects have been removed over the years (which is illegal), and many more casually picked up and taken out of situ. It is for precisely these reasons that new efforts must be made to document historic sites in the Arctic. More information signs and suitable pathways must be constructed on the sites, and monitoring must be ongoing. These sites are non-renewable historic resources hearing witness to human exploration, courage and tragedy. They deserve our full attention, respect and protection. They need to be preserved to educate and inspire future generations of Arctic visitors.
26 August–11 September 2000
Noel D. Broadbent
Department of Archaeology, Umeå University
The Andrée Museum
Department of Archaeology, Umeå University
Department of Archaeology, Umeå University
Directorate for Cultural Heritage
Environmental Archaeology Laboratory, Umeå University
Andrée, S.A., Strindberg, N. and Fraenkel, K. 1930.Med Örnen mot Polen. Stockholm. Lundström, S. 1997. ”Vår position är ej synnerligen god … ” Andréeexpeditionen i svart och vitt. Stockholm.
Wråkberg, U. 1999. The Centennial of S. A. Andrée’s North Pole Expedition. Stockholm.