Svalbard Archaeology

Text by Dag Avango, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden
Photographs from MTU Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections

Select on photograph to enlarge

The history of Svalbard, or Spitsbergen as it was generally known as before the ratification of the Svalbard treaty in 1925, has always been connected to the exploitation of natural resources. The archipelago was discovered in 1596 by Dutch explorer Willem Barents.  In the following years, the islands became the scene of intense whale hunting activity. Whalers from several European nations were active all around the archipelago, hunting for whales and producing oil in land based blubber cookers. For a period of time, it amounted to an industry. However, after a few decades the whale populations crashed and the whalers left the archipelago.

During the course of the 18th century, human activity on Svalbard was dominated by hunters from northern-western Russia, the Pomors. According to some archaeologists, the Pomors arrived on Svalbard in the 16th century or possibly even earlier. Most researchers, however, agree that the peak of Pomor activity took place in the 18th century. The Pomors used a wide-ranging system of base stations and outlying hunter’s camps in their activities, but nothing that can be defined as an industry. Pomor hunting activity diminished in the early 19th century.

For most of the 19th century, Norwegian hunters and occasionally whalers dominated economic exploitation on Svalbard. During the same period, European science turned their eyes on the archipelago, with the natural resources as a source of knowledge and a potential economic asset. Over the whole century, with a peak towards its end, a large number of scientific expeditions were sent from several European countries, a substantial part coming from Sweden.

The coal mining industry on Svalbard developed during the early 20th century, but the use of the coal seams can be traced further back in time. On the west side of the main island Spitsbergen, the coal seams are exposed in the mountain sides on several locations, especially around the large fiord  called Isfjorden in the center of the island. These coal outcrops were easy to discover for Europeans familiar with the visual appearance of coal. The Svalbard coal was first mentioned by the whale hunters of the 17th century, who used it on board their ships. Among them was Jonas Poole from Great Britain, who claimed the archipelago for the British king after discovering coal on the island   of Bjørnøya. Coal was also discovered and used from time to time   during the 19th century, by tourist cruisers, scientific expeditions   and Norwegian skippers.

The first attempts to mine coal for commercial purposes was made in the late 1890´s, when the international coal prices peaked. The first mine was opened by Norwegian skipper Sören Zachariassen at Bohemanflya in the Isfjorden. Zachariassen was successful and other Norwegian skippers followed his example, taking possession of coal seams that were easy available along the coastlines of the main fiords on western Spitsbergen.

Typically, these early Norwegian mining and prospecting companies only had access to limited financial resources and therefore failed to open larger scale, all-year coal mining. Their mining operations were only minor camps, consisting of a house or two, a mine pit in the mountainside and a simple pier. A few years into the 20th century, these companies offered to sell their properties, and buyers appeared. On the northern shore of the Adventfjorden, the claims of the Norwegian company “A/S Bergen-Spitsbergen Kulkompani” were transferred to the British “Spitsbergen Coal & Trading Company”. This company opened the first mining settlement for year around production on the archipelago, Advent City. At the same time, another Norwegian mining company sold their claims on the southern side of Adventfjorden to American capitalists Frederick Ayer and John Munroe Longyear, who founded the Arctic Coal Company.

This company established Longyear City, a mining town that came to be one of the most important on Svalbard in the 20th century. It is widely agreed among historians that the establishment of Longyear City and the Arctic Coal Company, was of major importance for the later development of the mining industry on Svalbard. Their operations proved to other interested actors that it was possible to establish a successful coal mine in the Arctic. Longyear City was sold to the Norwegian company “Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani A/S” in 1916  and now known as Longyearbyen, is the administrative capital of Svalbard today.

There were also other parties from other nations involved in the coal rush developing on Svalbard between 1900 and 1925; British, Russian, Swedish and Dutch. Towards the end of the First World War, several mining settlements were established by these actors along the fiords of western Spitsbergen. More and more coal ships plowed the waters of the Arctic Sea as northern Norway became a center for the offices of foreign mining companies and a recruiting ground for mine workers.

There are several explanations for this coal rush. One is obviously economical; Europe was industrializing and the industrialization process was moving rapidly in the Scandinavian countries at the time. Moreover, the Scandinavian countries had only very limited coal resources and therefore Svalbard, relatively close at hand, became an attractive source.  Another explanation is Svalbard’s status as a “no-man’s land”, or “Terra Nullius”,  a national status widely agreed upon since the 17th century. The no- man’s land conditions meant that it was free for everyone who so wished to exploit the natural resources of the archipelago, without restrictions and taxation.

Another driving force was national prestige and strategies of foreign policy. In 1905 Norway broke up the Swedish-Norwegian union, an action that was very unpopular in ruling circles in Sweden. When Norway, a few years later, suggested that the no-man’s land of Svalbard should be incorporated into Norway, this was interpreted as a provocation by the Swedish government. To strengthen the position of the Swedish government in future negotiations, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs successfully persuaded Swedish capitalists to occupy coalfields there. In the same way, the Norwegian government, with the active help of some Norwegian polar scientists, encouraged Norwegian mining interests to do the same. In the early 1910´s, the Russian government took similar measures, for the same reasons. A Norwegian Svalbard was unthinkable to them, since the Svalbard archipelago had been regarded as an old Russian hunting ground. Thus, coalfields were occupied for the sake of Norwegian, Russian and Swedish foreign policy, as well as their economic value.

The political stakes in Svalbard coalmining was also addressed by the other actors involved in the coal rush, but with no support from their national governments. The British mining companies  (The Northern Exploration Company and The Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate) wanted the archipelago incorporated within the British empire. The same was true for the American Arctic Coal Company, whose principal owner John M Longyear argued for the United States to take over Svalbard.

Thus, there were both economic and political motives behind the activities of the mining companies on Svalbard. The political motives are reflected in the fact that the mining companies tried to occupy as much territory as possible, in order to strengthen their case in future negotiations on the national status of the archipelago.

The Svalbard coal rush came to abrupt end in the 1920´s for two main reasons; falling world market prices on coal and the fact that Norway established control over the archipelago with the ratification of the Svalbard treaty in 1925.  From the end of the 1920´s, there were basically only two nations involved in the industry; Norway and the Soviet Union. The Norwegian “Store Norske” and “Kings Bay Kul Company” mined coal at Longyearbyen, Sveagruvan (formerly the Swedish Svea mine) and Ny Ålesund. The Soviet Trust Arktikugol mined coal at Barentsburg (formerly a Dutch property), Pyramiden and Grumant City-Coles Bay. This situation has changed little up this day, though active mining has ceased at Ny Ålesund, Pyramiden and Grumant City-  Coles Bay. 

A Hayward Company derrick loads coal for movement to the dock. 

An example of an Arctic Coal Company claim marker painted red, white, and blue. 

The ACC steamer, WILLIAM D. MUNROE, an unidentified boat, and a whale in Green Harbor captured by photographer A.B. Wilse. 

The former Norwegian tourist hotel, after it was moved to a new location at Old Longyear City.

Looking down onto the aerial tramway from the ACC mine.

Some of the ACC buildings and railway tracks near the dock on Advent Bay.

The WILLIAM D. MUNROE anchored in the bay.

A view of the facilities located on Advent Bay.

The Arctic Coal Company staff house and the mine on the hillside above. 

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