Unearthing the History of
Sealing on South Georgia
The project has been developed by the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) as part of their programme of conserving the island’s heritage. A group combining the SGHT and the archaeologists from the University of Cambridge will make a 30-day expedition to study the heritage of the 18th and 19th century American and British sealers who worked and lived on South Georgia. Detailed archaeological survey of the beaches where the sealers worked is expected to reveal information that will add to the sparse historical records and give a better picture of the sealers’ inhabitation of South Georgia and their early impact upon the island’s ecology.
MV Hans Hansson, a 26 metre, former Swedish rescue cruiser, will be chartered from Stanley, Falkland Islands in February 2019. On reaching South Georgia, the team will spend three weeks visiting a selection of archaeological sites. For each site, an accurate location plan will provide the foundation for a detailed ground survey and investigation.
A drone will be flown over each site to take a series of high resolution images which will be used to produce 2- and 3-dimensional models of the land surface. To reveal the character of some structures, and to assess their value for preservation, the clearance of surface debris may be required, along with small-scale excavation of test pits and trial trenches. However, it is expected that digging will be at a minimum, perhaps with the exception of some caves where sealers lived and an occupation soil has accumulated. Altogether, this work will form a baseline of known archaeology against which additional artefacts and structural remains exposed by erosion in the future may be measured.
The archaeological team from the University of Cambridge, England, will be will be co-led by Christopher Evans, Executive Director, and senior archaeologist Dr. Marcus Brittain of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), accompanied by Dr. Oscar Aldred and PhD student Ian Ostericher.
Following his visit to South Georgia in 1775, Captain James Cook reported the abundance of seals breeding on the island’s beaches. This attracted the attention of predominantly American and British sealers who descended on the island to harvest fur seals and elephant seals for their valuable pelts and blubber respectively.
The sealers were the 19th century equivalent of the better-known 20th century whalers in destroying populations of marine mammals and significantly altering the island’s ecosystem.
Whereas the whaling industry has left ruins of factories, which have been extensively studied, sealing sites have been overlooked. The scattered and fragmentary remains of sealing camps, ship wrecks and a few graves are the only concrete record of the early sealing industry. Little is known of these sites, which today are at risk of destruction and loss.
The most obvious relics of elephant-sealing are large cast-iron trypots, used to render oil from blubber. There are sometimes the remains of the furnaces – tryworks – on which the trypots were mounted. Remains of fur-sealing are known by only a few wooden pegs which were used for staking out pelts to dry. Using archaeological methods, however, further light upon this early industry may be revealed.
Relics of the lives of the sealers are seen in the caves and with remains of stone, brick and wooden huts in shore coves where they camped in what must have been appalling conditions. And there are grave markers that remind us that sealing was a hazardous occupation.
Over the years many artefacts have been removed and lost without detailed record. Now entire sites are threatened by erosion through storms or – ironically – through trampling by the hordes of seals that breed once more on the beaches.
It is important that these sites are comprehensively recorded and artefacts salvaged for their preservation and study before it is too late.
As well as generating research papers and popular articles, the project will engage with the public through the artefacts deposited at the South Georgia Museum.
These will be used to stage a dedicated exhibit and will be available for loan to exhibitions elsewhere. The findings of the expedition will be posted on relevant websites.
Contacts & Photo Credits
Contact: Robert Burton (Project Manager), email@example.com
Photo Credits: South Georgia Surveys, Robert Burton, Jill Fruin (MV Hans Hansson photos),
SGHT (museum photo)