Polar Heritage - Rubbish or Relics?

by Ken Catford


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




'Polar Heritage - Rubbish or Relics?' - that is the title of a thoughtful report produced recently by the Polar Heritage Committee of ICOMOS (which is the International Committee for Monuments and Sites; a part of the UNESCO organization).

The polar regions have been the scenes of heroic human endeavours over the centuries, and many of these activities have left historical remnants behind them. Surviving relics range from the famous to the ordinary; from sites such as Shackleton's base at Cape Royds, to simple trappers' huts. Some of these have featured previously here in Polar Worlds, including the current efforts by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust to conserve and interpret the remains at Cape Royds (see 'Conservation of Historic Antarctic Huts' by Martin Williams - April 2004).

Many remains are much less glamorous, and often have the appearance of being no more than rubbish dumps. Indeed in some cases that is exactly what they were! To archaeologists many (but certainly not all) of these left-overs from the past offer valuable opportunities to investigate and learn. To environmentalists, on the other hand, they represent unwanted intrusions into the pristine wilderness, and of course the polar regions have been rightly acclaimed as the last true wilderness areas on earth.

The article by David Clammer ('South Georgia on my mind' - Polar Worlds, January 2003) describes the contrasts to be experienced on this remote island between its awesome scenery and wildlife, and the grim past of the intensive whaling industry as represented by the museum, the whalers' church, and other associated relics at Grytviken. Modern appreciation of the remote wilderness is surely not lessened by the presence of these enlightening - and disturbing - relics of a past era.

The growing pressure by environmentalists that almost all traces of human activity should be swept away in an effort to return to pristine conditions is highlighted by the ICOMOS report. The authors urge a more cautious approach, and cite the example of Virgohamna in the far north-west of Svalbard. Between 1896 and 1909 various attempts were made to fly from there to the North Pole by gas balloon or dirigable. None was successful in reaching the pole, and the 1897 attempt by Swedish engineer Andreé Salomon proved fatal for himself and his two companions. By the 1970s when the site was first protected as a historic monument, the various remains included the unsightly scattered timbers from the hangars and shattered debris from the early gas making plants. The protected status apparently did not stop a horrified Norwegian Minister of the Environment from declaring that 'this has got to be cleared up!' when he viewed the site in 1995. Meanwhile an American academic had begun to examine the debris from an archaeological point of view, and was learning and inferring a great deal about the activities which had taken place there a hundred years previously. His analysis was published by Rutgers University in 1999: P. J. Capelotti; By Airship to the North Pole: An Archaeology of Human Exploration. The site is now totally protected by law.

Very recently the Norwegian Government has protected another example of the industrial past on Svalbard. The Directorate for Cultural Heritage has passed legislation protecting some 10 km of ropeway trestles, as well as the prominent structure of 'Ropeway Central' at Longyearbyen. These relics of coal mining were described in my article for Polar Worlds in January 2004 ('Svalbard coal - a hundred years'). Having made a plea in that article for the protection of these artefacts, it is gratifying to see Ropeway Central being described officially as:

'both architecturally and technically an important symbol for Longyearbyen and the development of activities in Svalbard. It is a unique piece of the totality of high Arctic cultural heritage.'

Perhaps the Norwegian Government reads Polar Worlds!

Very sensibly the Polar Heritage Committee's report concludes by calling for '. . . much closer co-operation between those with heritage interests and those with environmental interests in order to prevent loss of cultural material for environmental reasons.' One means of helping to achieve such mutual understanding must be through this web-based newsletter Polar Worlds with its contributions covering a wide variety of both environmental and cultural viewpoints.


© K.E. Catford 2004. Ken Catford is an Architect who has been an enthusiast of industrial archaeology for many years. His interest in researching early development in the Arctic has arisen through several visits to Arctic regions since 1990.



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