The South Georgia Archaeological Project

Unearthing the History of Sealing on South Georgia


The Project

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.

 

Download this brochure (click on image) for details of how you can join us on the trip.

 

 

 

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.

MV Hans Hansson

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 Team

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.


Background

Seal Lancing

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.

 

 

Sealers Camp

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trypot

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.

Photos. left: Leather hat, right: Brick foundation

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.

Photos. left: Sealers’ hut, right: Glazed pottery (c.1780-1820)

It is important that these sites are comprehensively recorded and artefacts salvaged for their preservation and study before it is too late.

Fortuna Cave

Mapping South Georgia’s dynamic coastal margin

Drone, Photo by Amy Guest, SAERI

In addition to the archaeological fieldwork, the Hans Hansson’s itinerary around South Georgia will provide opportunities for the Coastal Habitat Mapping Project led by the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) based in the Falkland Islands. It will provide valuable assistance for the archaeologists and will help maximise the scientific value of the expedition.

The mapping project has used medium resolution (10 metre) satellite imagery with other spatial information and local expert knowledge to develop the first island-wide, broad-scale coastal margin (terrestrial, intertidal and subtidal) habitat maps for South Georgia.

Where there are gaps in these broad-scale maps, or additional information is needed, fine-scale maps will be developed using very high resolution (5 – 50cm) imagery, from satellites or drones. The drones will be flown during the expedition to take high resolution images of the South Georgia coastline, which will also be used to produce an aerial map for the archaeologists. At the same time crucial information on the range and extent of coastal vegetation, habitats and other features will be collected by surveys on foot.

The habitat models and maps produced by this project will provide an important baseline for use in conservation planning, decision making and monitoring by the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands and other interested organisations.

The coastal mapping project is a truly international collaboration and is supported by the Darwin Initiative through UK Government funding. SAERI are working with Oregon State University, the UK Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Shallow Marine Surveys Group, Falkland Islands Government and Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.

You can find out more on the project website

https://www.south-atlantic-research.org/research/terrestrial-science/coastal-mapping-project
or contact the project manager, Neil Golding (ngolding@env.institute.ac.fk).


Outreach

South Georgia Museum

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), rwburton@ntlworld.com
Photo Credits:
South Georgia Surveys, Robert Burton, Jill Fruin (MV Hans Hansson photos),
SGHT (museum photo)
Amy Guest, SAERI (drone photo)


Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU)
Friends of South Georgia Island (FOSGI)
South Georgia Museum
Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI)