International Scientific Conference "Archeology of the Arctic"
November 19-23, 2017

Monumental pomor Crosses in Spitsbergen.

J. Chochorowski

Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland




As the Norwegian geologist Balthazar M. Keilhau (1831. P. 119) observed with respect to Bear Island in the report from his journey to Svalbard in 1827: “Næsten paa alle fremspringende Hjörner af Landkanten have Russerne opreist deres Kors” (“crosses erected by the Russians can be seen on virtually every promontory”). Good examples of this phenomenon are two “tall Russian crosses” in Sydkap (today Sörkapp), the southernmost point of Western Svalbard, which Keilhau and his companions noticed in 1827 (Keilhau 1831. P. 139), and which could not escape the attention of any sailor heading north. Another cross they spotted in this place had reportedly been found fallen and lying on the ground (Conway 1906. P. 250). A fallen Orthodox cross is also known from Cape Sletneset on the northern side of the Bellsund mouth (Chochorowski 1999. Fig. 20). Although we have no complete inventory of monumental Russian crosses in Svalbard, it leaves little doubt that they were a common way of marking the presence of Pomor hunters and sailors, as well as an expression of their devotion. As the crosses were raised in places well visible from sea, they were interpreted in the past primarily as navigational signs (Starkov, Ovsjannikov 1980. P. 124), although their sacral nature has never been questioned (see e.g. Chernosvitov 1990. P. 164). This interpretation was also extended to monumental votive/penitentiary crosses on the shores of the Pomorie region in Russia. However, the many known examples of the sacralisation of space by erecting shrines (and their importance in Orthodox ceremonial - Bernshtam 1983. PP. 173, 181 and Fig. 6) are first of all a reflection of the common and widespread devotion of the Pomor people. These attempts at the sacralisation of space were typical of both Svalbard hunters and those operating in Nova Zemlja. The repeated erection of monumental crosses in the same place, perhaps at the beginning and end (?) of each winter stay, was a natural act of sacralisation of the entire enterprise and of the place of residence. This could explain, for example, the foundation in 1764 of two monumental crosses in a briefly occupied station of Lieutenant M.S. Nemtinov, whose task was to prepare a base in Recherchefjorden in Bellsund for the expedition of V.Ja. Chichagov (1765-1766). For sailors of such immense experience raising crosses as navigational signs in a small fjord would be irrational.

The monumental crosses of Svalbard have recently gained an interesting context which sheds new light on the interpretation of their cultural meaning. This became possible thanks to the dendrochronological analysis of cross relics from Schönningholmane, from a station situated on the southern side of the mouth of the Hornsund fjord. The information collected during archaeological excavations and dendrochronological analysis led to the conclusion that the station was built in a single construction episode in order to winter a large group (artel) of hunters. The complex was comprised of three buildings: a large house, a skipper’s (‘kormshchik’) house, and a bath. On a hill dominating the station the relics of a monumental Orthodox cross were discovered (shaft/foundation and transversal and diagonal arms). The transversal arm (patibulum) bore an engraved inscription which started and closed with the abbreviations I?ИС and ХС (ИИСУС ХРИСТОС) and C… БЖИ (СЫНЬ БОЖИЙ), between which there was a prayer formula in two lines: КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛАНЯЕМСЯ В...? (in the upper line), and …ТВОЕ ПОЕМЪ I? СЛАВИМЪ? (in the lower one), which together reads – КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛАНЯЕМСЯ ВЛАДЫКО И СВЯТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ТВОЕ ПОЕМЪ И СЛАВИМЪ. Interestingly, the cross’s shaft was made from a trunk cut down distinctly earlier (43 years) than the wood used for the construction of the houses. A similar situation was observed in an ancillary station at Bjørnbeinflyene, which functioned parallel with Schönningholmane and was dated by a kaolinite pipe to 1770-1819 AD. A pine timber from which the shaft of the cross was made pre-dated the wood used in a nearby small hut by at least 45 years. Perhaps, some old timber was secondarily used, or a cross from the continent was dismantled and reassembled on the foundation of the station as a symbolic sacralisation of the place and entire enterprise. In light of what we know about the strategy of Russian hunters’ operations it seems highly unlikely that the cross was erected many years before the station was established. All this points to the conclusion that in their attempts at sacralisation, reflected by the raising of crosses next to stations (or huts), the Pomors referred to symbols which had already been deeply entrenched in tradition and were regarded as important for a given group of hunters even before their expedition started.



Bernshtam T.A. Russkaia narodnaia kul'tura Pomor'ia v XIX-nachale XX veka. – Leningrad, 1983. – 231 P.

Starkov V.F., Ovsiannikov O.V. Arkheologicheskie issledovaniia na Shpitsbergene // Vestnik Akademii Nauk SSSR. 1980. – № 3. – PP. 122-128.

Chernosvitov P.Iu. K probleme pomorskogo sudovozhdeniia u beregov arkhipelaga Shpitsbergen // Ocherki istorii osvoeniia Shpitsbergena. – Moskva, 1990. – PP. 157-167.

Chochorowski J. Problems of the Dendrochronology of Russian Hunting Stations on Spitsbergen. – Kraków, 1999.

Conway M., sir  No Man’s Land. – Cambridge, 1906.

Keilhau B.M. Reise i Öst- og Vest-Finmarken samt til Beeren-Eiland og Spitsbergen i Aarane 1827 og 1828. – Christiania, 1831.

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