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History of Spitsbergen

Russian »Lodje« as drawn by Gerrits de Veer report from Barentsz’ expedition 1596

Russian »Lodje« as drawn by de Veers report from Barentsz' expedition 1596

Orthodox cross (reproduction) and trapper’s hut, Isfjord

Orthodox cross (reproduction) and trapper's hut, Isfjord

The Pomors were people who lived in the north of Russia, at the coast of the White Sea. They were hunters and fishers and had a long tradition of hunting in the arctic. Without any doubt, they were active in most parts of Svalbard for centuries. The timing of their arrival in Svalbard is uncertain, though. A questions which has been discussed for a long time – and has not been answered yet – is to whether the Pomors came to Svalbard earlier than 1596, the year of the official discovery of Spitsbergen by the Dutchman Willem Barentsz. This is a hypothesis which archeologists especially from the Sovjet Union tried to prove during the cold war.

Remains of Pomor hunting station with bricks and cross (rebuilt), Isfjord

Remains of Pomor hunting station with bricks and cross (rebuilt), Isfjord

Neither historical nor archeological evidence is really clear, but it is at least possible that the Pomors had several hunting stations in Svalbard during the 16th century, decades before Barentsz. About half a dozen sites with remains of such stations from those years have been found at teh west coast of Spitsbergen; the problem is, that dating by means of dendrochronology (tree rings) refers to the age of the wood and not to the the year the hut was built, which could also have been moved from Russia to the Arctic. Anyway, until now the Pomors are the ones who can claim the longest history of more or less continuous activities in Svalbard: the last stations were finally abandoned in the 19th century.

Original orthodox cross set up by Pomors near Nordaustland

They came to hunt arctic wildlife and for this purpose they built hunting stations of quite some size; not only a small hut as did Norwegian trappers of the late 19th and 20th century, but almost small settlements with main building, forge, storage buildings, sauna etc. Up to 20 people may have wintered there together, and games such as chess boards have been found many times. But their stay in the Arctic was almost always temporary, as their families lived on the mainland, to which they returned after a year. Svalbard provided hunting grounds, but not a real home.

One of very few original orthodox crosses from the Pomors’ days that are still standing. Murchisonfjord, Nordaustland.

One of very few original orthodox crosses from the Pomors' days that are still standing. Murchisonfjord, Nordaustland

Remains of hunting stations can be seen at the coast in most parts of Svalbard. Large, wooden orthodox crosses were commonly put up for religious purposes and to make orientation easier, but most of those fell victim to the weather and to later visitors in need of firewood. There are some remains of orthodox crosses lying on the ground, but standing original crosses are very rare. A characteristic of Pomor settlements are remains of bricks which were used to build the oven (Norwegian trappers brought metal ovens with them).

Remains of Pomor hunting station on Edgeøya

Remains of Pomor hunting station on Edgeøya

Pomor grave in Bellsund

Pomor grave in Bellsund


last modification: 2019-03-01 · copyright: Rolf Stange