One definition of archaeology is that it is the systematic study of past material remains with the purpose of generating knowledge of human social and cultural behaviour. Marine Archaeology is, according to this definition, a special branch of archaeology specialising in human social interaction with the sea and with marine conditions.

In the Arctic, almost all human activity has been linked to the sea. Ships and boats have been man’s most important tool for exploiting – economically or otherwise these northerly waters and islands. Ships, as with all material culture, are in part the results of physical needs under certain conditions. But ships and boats are also cultural artefacts, and can demonstrate the various building traditions and cultural strategies chosen to master a particular situation.

This marine archaeology project began in 1997, mainly as a survey project dealing with ship timber driftwood on the coast. Drift ice and currents mean that driftwood found on Svalbard can originate from a relatively widespread area, in particular, the north Russian and Siberian coasts. The cold, dry climate makes the conditions for preservation extremely good. Such freeze-dried wood can in fact be several thousand years old (Häggblom 1972, Eggertsson 1994). In the summer of 1998 Per Lejoneke took part in the 1998 SWEDARCTIC expedition. That survey concluded that the amount of driftwood differs radically from beach to beach (Lejoneke 1998). For this reason, a survey plan concentrating on some relatively dry beaches of the northeast coast of Nordaustlandet was formulated for the 2000 expedition.

Ship timber driftwood

The survey technique used consisted of walking along the beaches at different levels. Because the elevation varies greatly over Svalbard, it was supposed that older wood would be found at higher levels on east Svalbard, but closer to the current shoreline on the west side. When ship timbers were found, their positions were determined by GPS and documented using drawings, photos and video. Additionally, at some sites wood samples were taken for carbon-14 and dendrochronological analyses.

Ice and weather conditions during the 2000 expedition made it impossible to visit most of the originally planned sites. Therefore, the selection of sites to be visited was somewhat random, though partly determined by the need to synchronise the various scientific aspects of the expedition. This proved to be rather lucky for the marine archaeology study.

General surveys for ship timber driftwood were done on Kvitöja, Barentsöja and Lågöja. At all of these locations a vast amount of driftwood was found, most commonly wood apparently originating from Siberia. This consisted both of ordinary logs and of pieces of simply built rafts. Also rather common were more complex constructions, such as parts of keels and frames belonging to actual ships. Their relatively recent dating is indicated by the fact that the fastenings consist of bolts and iron bars, often still intact in the timber. Nonetheless, because of the extremely good conditions for the preservation of iron, this could be misleading. The strongest argument for estimating that this material is no more than a couple of hundred years old is that almost all of the ship material is found at relatively low levels, often between 0-3 metres above today’s sea level.

One exception, found on Kvitöja was a piece of small plank with a simple carving a cross one end. It was found at a level of ten metres above sea level, more than 300 metres from shore. It could well be a part of a prehistoric boat or artefact, but might also originate from the Andrée expedition, as their camp was situated just 500 metres from this find. A C-14 dating of this plank is planned.

Ship timbers in context

However, possibly the most interesting sites pertaining to marine archaeology and ship finds during the expedition proved to be Nordre Russöja in Murchisonfjorden, and above all Mosselbukta on the north-east side of Widjefjorden.

On Nordre Russöja there was a Russian hunting settlement dating from the 18th century. This place has a good strategic position at the northerly entrance to Hinlopen, and the bay next to the island provides well protected anchorage. On the island today can be found there mains of a small cottage, and a Russian cross still stands on the island. A small archaeological investigation was done on Nordre Russöja in 1898 by Carlhem-Gyllensköld; a new documentation of the remains of the Russian cottage was done by our expedition. On the shores around the island we found several pieces of ship and boat timbers. Most interesting were two frames from a small clinker-built boat. It is possible that these are parts of some kind of fishing boat once used locally.

Mosselbukta is the place were Nordenskiölds Spetsbergsexpedition stayed during the winter of 1872–1873. A couple of hundred metres from the Polhem station, the remains of a large carvel-built ship were found. The ship seems to have been covered by beach sand for a long time, and has recently been partially uncovered by water from melting ice. What was visible without excavation during our expedition was part of a heavily built ship bottom with boarding planks, frames and inner planking. The bottom seemed to be relatively flat and at least six metres wide. The measurements of the keel and the position of the s tern and stern were impossible to estimate during our examination. However, the visible remains suggest that the ship was at least 20 metres long. It is quite possible that the ship is the remains of an old Dutch whaler. Wood samples for dendrochronological and C-14-analyses were taken in order to confirm this hypothesis.

There were also very interesting findings further in to the bay. At Mosselbukta, as on Nordre Russöja, there are remains of a Russian hunting and fishing station from the 1700–1820 period. At Mosselbukta there are also the remains of two graves and a cottage. While inspecting the site, several pieces of sewn boats were found both outside the cottage and inside the remains of the house. Four boarding planks and a piece of a keel were documented. The boarding planks are sewn together with roots and the holes in the planks are placed in small groups. This construction style is usually regarded as typically Russian, compared, for example, to the different method the Lapps used when they made sewn boats (Forsell 1983, Westerdahl 1987). Sewn boats are a very rare find, and the tradition goes back as far as prehistoric times. Interestingly, many of the artefacts from the 1800th-century cottage were also very simple and almost prehistoric. This includes the wood artefacts, as well as the homemade and badly burned pottery.

Most of the sewn boat pieces from the Russian hut at Mosselbukta seem to be from a relatively small fishing boat, possibly used just at this place. However, one plank is rather heavy and seems to be from a bigger ship. It may be from one of the lodjor, which were used for sailing across the Barents Sea to Svalbard.

Preliminary conclusions

The arctic shores of Svalbard contain rich and interesting ship archaeological material. Thanks to the ice floes and currents, parts of ships are transported to Svalbard and accumulate there. The possibility of finding very old boats on the shore is of course very tempting to a marine archaeologist. However, the study of ship timber driftwood also faces certain problems. First, due to having been transported in ice and the wave action on shore, the timbers are often very eroded. That makes the identification and interpretation of their construction very difficult. Another obvious problem is the origin of the ship timbers. Without a cultural context the findings on shore are nothing more than just technical building blocks. With quite a bit of luck, dendrochronological analyses could answer some of these questions. However, determining the date and origin often requires several pieces of wood from the same object – rather difficult to get.

One conclusion from the summer 2000 expedition is that, for the above reasons, the most interesting ship archaeological work to be done on Svalbard today seems to be at the natural harbours and near old occupation places. This is where people have anchored their ships, built shelters, worked and spent time for at least 400 years (compare, for example, Chochorwski and Jasinski 1990). Archaeological work on natural harbours along the Nordic coast have also shown that natural harbours often yield rich archaeological material, both on land and underwater. The possibility of carrying out surveys under water is intriguing. When ships are anchored at the same place for a long time, a lot of waste and artefacts accumulate on the bottom. It is also very common for ships to be lost during their time in harbour: especially in the Arctic, many ships must have sunk during the winter, either due to ice or fire.

The shipwrecks on the shores and in the water at Svalbard demonstrate the different survival strategies man has chosen in the extreme Arctic climate over the centuries. To study these Arctic boats and ships is also, in this sense, to touch upon the question of how humans interact with the sea and with their physical surroundings in general.