Sketch of Waldenøya in Martin Conway, First Crossing of Spitsbergen (1897)

Sketch of Waldenøya (From Martin Conway, First Crossing of Spitsbergen (1897)).

Waldenøya is a small black crescent of knarled rock, approximately 500 feet (175m) high at it highest point, located at 80° 30’ north, 19° 30’ east.  In comparative terms, it is some 600 nautical miles closer to the North Pole than Point Barrow on the northern coast of Alaska.   It is named after John Walden, a midshipman on board Constantine Phipps expedition vessel H.M.S. Racehorse, who visited the island with two companions on August 5, 1773.  Parry’s 1827 polar expedition likely visited and possibly left a cache on the island.  The next recorded visit was by Benjamin Leigh Smith in 1873.  Walter Wellman’s polar expedition was wrecked at the island in 1894.

The 1894 expedition was the earliest of Wellman’s attempts to reach the North Pole, and resulted in the wreck of Wellman’s chartered Norwegian ice steamer, Ragnvald Jarl, at Waldenøya in the Sjuøyane (Seven Islands) off the north coast of the Svalbard archipelago.  This expedition marked the earliest U.S./Scandinavian cooperation in geographic and scientific research in the polar regions.  Waldenøya is one of the most inaccessible islands in the entire archipelago, lying at nearly 81 degrees north and almost perpetually ice-fast.

Bottolfsen, captain of Wellman’s chartered ice steamer Ragnvald Jarl, moored the expedition vessel to the western shore of Waldenøya in May of 1894.

1896 photograph of the ruins of the Wellman 1894 hut on Waldenøya (from Martin Conway, First Crossing of Spitsbergen (1897)).

It was there that Wellman’s first polar expedition effectively ended when the Jarl was crushed by ice and sunk alongside Waldenøya’s ice-fouled western shore.  To that shore, the crew of the Jarl retreated, and erected a wood-frame and sail-cloth hut with materials salvaged from the wreck, cached some dynamite from the ship, fended off a polar bear, and, a week later, sailed southwest in the ship’s boats to rescue by a fortuitously passing sealing sloop.

After Wellman’s eventful stay, Sir William Martin Conway reached the island during his expedition to Svalbard in 1896 (Conway 1897).  The Swedish-Russian Arc-of-Meridian Expedition established a triangulation station on Waldenøya, where W. Carlheim-Gyllensköld made latitude and longitude observations on July 15, 1898, and Rubin made topographical observations on August 23, 1902 (Carlheim-Gyllensköld 1900; Norsk Polarinstitutt 1991: 468).

Our proposed research on the island includes a search for any surviving remains of the 1894 Wellman polar expedition.  By working in a cooperative international team made up of researchers from the U.S., Norway, and Sweden, with access to and familiarity with historical source materials within those countries, we will combine U.S., Norwegian, and Swedish historical source materials into a comprehensive account of both national and international research expeditions staged at the island.  Archaeological data gathered during this survey will provide us with baseline data with which to explore several research questions:

a.      The nature and conduct of U.S. leadership of the expedition.

b.      The social context of this earliest U.S./Norwegian cooperation in the Arctic.

c.       The sequence of defined cultural formation processes at work on the archaeological remains.

d.     A preliminary examination of the natural formation processes at work on cultural remains at Waldenøya, with a view toward defining these processes in relation to both locale climate archival records and global climate change in the high Arctic.

e.      The potential for long-term recording of cultural resource formation processes through the use of a remotely operated archaeological observatory, and the potential efficacy of such an approach elsewhere in the Arctic.


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