'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
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
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.