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

Why Spitsbergen is not Swalbard.

V.L. Derzhavin

Institute of Archeology RAS, Moscow




In 1920 under the Treaty of Paris  Norway acquired sovereignty over Spitsbergen and five years later the Norwegian Storting renamed the archipelago  Svalbard on the grounds of some vague evidence from Icelandic sources referring to the Vikings' voyage to that land in 1194. The rationale for the Norman version of the discovery of Spitsbergen was provided by a philologist G. Storm and was unconditionally accepted by F. Nansen [Hennig, 1961. P. 463]. This version was strongly supported by an absolute majority of Norwegian society which at the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries experienced an unprecedented national identity surge.   The renaming of the archipelago as Svalbard pursued the goal of reaffirming Norway's indisputable historical rights thereon. In this way Norway rejected the priority of the islands' discovery in 1596 by W. Barentsz who was the first to map the archipelago. Nonetheless at that time in Europe there were numerous supporters of a different opinion according to which Svalbard was located in Greenland. In the 19th century this opinion was shared by A. Humboldt, K. Rafn, K. Rheeder, G. Holm, F. Hellwald and others.

The problem of the exact location of Svalbard was accidentally resolved already in the 16th-17th centuries by Icelandic cartographers who worked on matching the sagas toponymy with the existing cartographic data. In 1706 a Danish historian of Icelandic origin T. Torfæus published a book "Gronlandia antiquæ" [Torfæus, 1706. Tabl. I-IV] illustrating it with the maps made by his predecessors ( J. Guðmundsson, T. Thorlacius, J. Bjørn), the earliest of which was dated not later than 1600. In these maps Svalbard's position was marked as 68°-72° n.l. near the eastern coast of Greenland. Moreover, there was a comment to a 1668 map stating that the distance from Iceland to Svalbard was 24 miles, i.e. 270 km (the old Norwegian mile equaled 11.3 km). This was exactly the distance which, according to an Icelandic saga a Vikings' drakkar could cover in four days starting from Iceland. And, of course, it would have been quite unrealistic for them to cover 1600 km to reach Spitsbergen at its easternmost point the Sørkapp island. Accidentally, the distance from Iceland to the settlements in the south-west Greenland was about the same, and it took the Vikings about two weeks to make the journey.

In the 18th century  the maps of eastern Greenland with Svalbard marked on them were also made by other European cartographers (E.  Bowen, F. Reilly, P. Egede), who placed Svalbard somewhere around Scoresby Sund or the adjacent modern Blosseville Coast.

Nansen attributed the sagas' reference to a four days journey to Svalbard and the presence of human population thereon to the rich fantasy of the authors. He also pointed to the impossibility for the Vikings' ships to reach the eastern coast of Greenland because of the ice barrier. However the Danish researchers of the first third of the 20th century found some Norman artifacts (buttons, beads, a comb) in the Eskimo graves around Scoresby Sund, which gave evidence of the Vikings' contacts with the local population [Tornøe, 1944. Fig. 6].

It should be noted that the majority of both the advocates and the opponents of Spitsbergen and Svalbard identity were unaware of the existence of the old Greenland's maps.  Today there are no doubts that the so-called "Svalbard" version was heavily loaded ideologically in the first place, and later it was used by the politicians of the first third of the 20th century for justification of their territorial claims, which was also recognized by some Norwegian historians (O. Riste, T. Arlov).  




1. Hennig R. Unknown lands Vol. II / Russian translation by Е.К.  Krasnokutskaya, A.D. Reichstein; preface and edit. A. B. Ditmar. – М.: Foreign Literature Press, 1961. – 520 p.

2. Torfæus T. Gronlandia antiquæ.  Copenhagen, 1706. 6 Tabl.

3.Tornøe J.K. Lysstreif over Norgesveldets historie. Oslo, 1944 Meddelelser Norges Svalbard-og Ishavsundersö-kelser; 56. – 218 p.

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