Cultural heritage sites are important for understanding the development of society. Most cultural heritage sites in Svalbard are on the coast, and some are more than 400 years old. They are well protected by legislation, but are nevertheless vulnerable because many people visit them. Climate change may also damage or destroy them since the weather is getting wetter and warmer, and erosion is increasing.
Well protected, but vulnerable
In Svalbard, most cultural heritage sites are remains of earlier research, expeditions and exploitation of natural resources. They are found throughout the archipelago and can be classified into the following periods:
• western European whaling in the 17th century
• Russian overwinter trapping in the 18th century
• Norwegian arctic hunting and international research in the 19th and 20th centuries
• international mining in the 20th century
• remains from the 2nd World War
• cultural heritage sites related to public management and the development of settlements
Very many cultural heritage sites are no longer used and are far away from the settlements. Thanks to the dry, cold Svalbard climate, they are relatively well preserved. The weather can, nevertheless, inflict much damage through wind, erosion and decay. Sites in Svalbard are much more stringently protected than those on the mainland in that all cultural heritage sites from before 1946 are automatically protected. This is good, strict protection that also ensures predictable management for the future. The Directorate for Cultural Heritage can also protect cultural heritage sites from after 1945 provided they have special cultural historical value. So far, two such individual protection orders have been issued, for the cableway in Longyearbyen and a research station at Kinnvika on Nordaustlandet.
The Governor of Svalbard is responsible for enforcing protection in the archipelago, and his staff must record, investigate, safeguard and provide information about the cultural heritage sites. Since 1976, 1383 cultural heritage sites have been recorded and 40 000 artefacts have been collected. These are kept in the cultural history store at Svalbard Museum. This store was opened in spring 2006 and also contains artefacts which Svalbard Museum has collected over many years. Artefacts have also been returned from the Netherlands, Tromsø Museum and Barentsburg in recent years.
Cultural heritage sites disappear
In Norway as a whole, at least one per cent of the cultural heritage sites disappear annually. In Svalbard, they are damaged by nature or people. When cultural heritage sites are damaged or disappear we lose first-hand sources of knowledge about the past. Many cultural heritage sites are also important for the sake of enjoyment and to understand ourselves and our identity.
A house remnant in KappLee, Prins Karls Forland. Photo: Governor of Svalbard
Traffic, use and commercial activity
The greatest threats to the cultural heritage sites in Svalbard are the weather and climate change. Cultural heritage sites that are located along the coast are exposed to shore erosion and meltwater, whereas those that are on slopes are at risk of solifluction, avalanches and landslides. Warmer weather gives better conditions for decomposer fungi and moulds that decay woodwork in cultural heritage sites. Some of the automatically protected buildings are used as cabins or in commercial activities. Use is often the best form of protection if you take into consideration that the building is a cultural heritage site and there is a fire hazard. However, cultural heritage sites are also prone to wear and tear from both people and polar bears. Polar bears seriously damage several former hunters’ huts every year. Tourists and scientists visiting cultural heritage sites increase the wear and tear by trampling and searching for souvenirs. In the settlements, conflicts may arise between cultural heritage sites and new buildings and infrastructure.
The remains of a 17th century blubber oven at Smeerenburg, where whale oil, sand and gravel formed blubber concrete that remains around the position of the big cooking vessels. In the blubber ovens, the whale blubber was rendered to produce whale oil which was taken to the markets on the continent. Photo: Bjørn Fossli Johansen / Norwegian Polar Institute
Maintenance and information
It is a national objective to safeguard cultural heritage sites as sources of scientific knowledge and to provide enjoyment now and in the future. The Governor of Svalbard prioritises the measures to be undertaken to achieve this in Svalbard, too. Selected cultural heritage sites are surveyed in detail and others are secured, maintained or restored. The cultural heritage sites in Svalbard are fed into Askeladden, the digital database maintained by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage. You can also see the artefacts in the store at Digital Museum.
The Governor of Svalbard has staff concerned solely with cultural heritage sites and a plan for the most important ones is updated every tenth year. In addition, there is a special set of regulations to protect cultural heritage sites from damage and destruction. Knowledge about cultural heritage sites is imparted through the newspaper Svalbardposten in Longyearbyen and brochures.