In summer 1991, Danish and Russian archaeologists worked together on the westernmost
island in the Aleutian Archipelago between Siberia and Alaska. One day in August their
joint efforts were successful: they found Bering's grave.
Vitus Bering was born in the year 1681 at Horsens. He went to sea a young man, visited India, among other countries, but in the year 1703 in Amsterdam he let himself be enlisted in the Russian navy which was being built by Peter the Great at that time. He took part in the Big Nordic War on the Russian side and was promoted to captain.
Although, as is well known, Peter the Great was oriented towards the West, he took a keen interest in the eastern areas of his enormous country; he wanted them mapped and he wanted to know what peoples lived in them. To this end he planned a Kamchatka expedition and chose Bering to be its leader. The Dane's main task was to map the sea area between Siberia and Alaska and to find out whether the two areas were connected by land.
The expedition started from the city then called St. Petersburg, which is its name again today. The year was 1725, but it took two years to move men and supplies over the enormous distance through Siberia. Arrived at the eastern coast of Asia one more year was spent for preparations, i.e. to build ships, but in the summer of 1728 Bering could leave the Kamchatka peninsula on board the St. Gabriel galleass to begin his commission proper. By sailing to the north along the coast he found the strait between the two continents, which was later to get its name from him, but there was a fog, so he could not - as James Cook was able to do later - from his deck sight the coasts of both continents. Having sailed out some distance on the open Arctic Ocean he returned, mapped the coasts and collected information on the people living there, as he had been told to do. Followers, e.g. the said James Cook, have praised his work highly.
Back in St. Petersburg Bering's findings met with scepticism which made him began planning a new Kamchatka expedition forthwith. Though Tsar Peter was now dead, the project got under way, attracting both money and participants on a very grand scale. The assigned tasks were correspondingly colossal: to map the entire Russian-Siberian coast from the White Sea over the Bering Strait to Japan, to map the western coasts of North America, from the strait down to Mexico, and to look for the mystical Gama Land then thought to lie between the two continents; this proved a chimera. The expedition was joined by scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences, whose task was to describe the nature and peoples of North America. Commercial tasks included establishment of trade relations with Japan.
The expedition departed in 1733, but the first years were dedicated to northern Siberia, so Bering reached Kamchatka, his old starting point, only in the year 1740. He spent the winter there and established the town of Petropavlovsk. When going to sea in the next summer he did so with two newly built ships, the St. Peter and the St. Paul, the first of these under his own command; but the ships soon became separated. Across the sea now called the Bering Sea the St. Peter reached Alaska, where a big volcano was sighted and given the name St. Elias, but the stay was short, because there was a shortage of provisions and scurvy was rampant. The German natural scientist G. W. Steller was among the explorers and knew how to cure this deficiency disease, but he never got the chance to gather the required plants.
The voyage home was difficult, but on 5 November land was sighted and thought to be Kamchatka, so they went ashore, but on an uninhabited island - this was also later named after the commander. Much reduced by illness the crew built huts, but many died, Bering among them. While at anchor the St. Peter foundered, but in the following spring the survivors managed out of the old ship to build a new, a single-masted Dutch galleass, and to sail her back to Kamchatka, arriving there in August 1742. Only 46 remained of the original crew of 78 men.
The results of Bering's two expeditions were to some degree suppressed in Russia of that time; after the death of Tsar Peter the open relationship with the West gave way to a more reserved attitude. The big country profited by gaining sovereignty over Alaska, which lasted till the year 1867 when the territory was sold to the United States of America. The Russians also benefited from extensive hunts for fur-bearing animals in the areas now mapped. Outstanding scientific results include the works of Steller already mentioned. His description of the manatee or Steller's sea-cow is famous. This animal lived on Bering Island and was there observed scientifically for the first time, which regrettably led to its extinction a few years later.
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Today, Vitus Bering is regarded as some kind of Russian Columbus and he enjoys much
respect on the whole in the country where he did his life-work, especially in its eastern
areas. The island to which he gave his name is only a little smaller than Fyn Island, it
is located on the same latitude as Denmark, but with a much rougher climate, more like the
climate on the Faeroe Island or Iceland. It was uninhabited in bygone days, but now nearly
1400 people live there, all in a village in the northern part. The interest felt for
Bering has led to some diggings, both by amateurs and professionals, with a view to find
traces left by himself and by his companions. The results seem modest so far, but it is
worth mentioning that the fourteen cannons of the St. Peter were found in the year 1932 at
the place were the ship ran ashore; ten cannons were taken elsewhere and of these two were
later given to Horsens, where they were put up in Bering Park. There is not much written
evidence of these old diggings. A documented scientific basis for later works was laid
only with the study of the expedition's camping-ground by Russian archaeologist A.
Stanyukovich in 1979-81.
Bering died on 8 December 1741. In 1991, this was exactly 250 years ago, and thus a desire arose in Russia to find the old seafarer's grave. There are no pictures that could be said with any certainty to represent Bering, but the skeleton and the skull in particular were hoped to give a basis for making a plausible representation of the person. As a part of this plan the museum in Horsens, the town where Bering was born, was asked if they would be interested in taking part in diggings. They were, and so one day in July 1991 a small group of Russians and Danes arrived on the island where Vitus, the boy from Horsens, ended his days.
The place where the St. Peter anchored and was later wrecked, is a creek on the eastern side of the island. The cannons were found here and, some hundred metres away, the famous camping place which is now examined. There were five huts half dug into a bank of loose sand easy to work in. It can be said on the whole that nature was favourable to the shipwrecked: a river nearby gave plenty of drinking-water and a range of hills provided shelter from the cold wind often blowing from the mainland. No trees grow on the island, but drift-wood could be collected for building huts and for firewood.
Steller is to be thanked for the possibility of finding Bering's grave in this vast area: in his report he writes that Bering was buried close to his hut. This was identified with a high degree of probability as being the one most to the north of the five huts found, so the work focused here. As already mentioned, the huts were dug into a bank and since there are several of those in the place we thought it best to look in the nearest one - Bering died in the winter when there must have been snow in the hollows. High tundra grass covered the bank and was removed, then disclosing a line of depressions in an east-to-west direction. This proved to be the graves where the loose filling of sand had subsided over the years.
The filling layers emerging upon removal of the topmost earth were not very distinct, but as the digging went on there was no uncertainty about the character of the finding. Five graves were uncovered in all, one of them differing from the others in containing two corpses and another in being very big, even bigger than the double grave, and also in that the body lay in a coffin. In all probability this last grave was Bering's.
In burying the dead without a coffin this was hardly due to any lack of reverence, but rather to a lack of wood, but in one case an exception had in fact been made and a thing at least resembling a coffin was built. The material used was boards, laths and handwrought iron nails; all in a poor shape after being buried for so long, but it is possible to do quite a reliable reconstruction. Build-up proper seems to have started right there in the grave: three prefabricated rectangular frames were placed on top of one another and kept in place with sticks and lath pieces placed in a slightly spread fashion along the inside; a nail here and there made the whole keep together. Probably in order to save wood both the bottom and the cover are a lattice-work of longitudinal laths, and could it be that a piece of sail-cloth was sewn to cover the whole thing? - earth would otherwise drop down on the deceased person. He lay at full length with his hands placed on the chest, but there were no objects of any kind. He was presumably taken to the grave in the bottom section. Only then was the top part added.
The mentioned double grave, wherein one skeleton was in a very peculiar position, was to the north of the coffin grave and remarkably close to this, whatever that may mean. In later times it has seen uninvited guests, but these only made slight damage and, in any case, it is not their fault that both skeletons had no feet - these have either disintegrated in the grave or they were eaten by the omnipresent and very troublesome blue foxes even before the bodies were buried; we know from expedition reports that such things happened on several occasions. Of the three other graves in the line, but located at a suitable distance from the neighbours, one must be mentioned especially because the skeleton can be identified. According to Victor Svjargin Nicolaiviskij, a medico-legal expert in the Russian team, the skeleton was of a man aged about 70, and only one member of the expedition belonged to that age class, that is, first mate Andreas Hesselberg (the name might indicate a Nordic extraction) who died on 22 November. A small tin cross of a Siberian type lay on his chest; this was probably acquired during the voyage. A similar cross is known from the camping-place.
Were the bodies buried clothed? We do not know, but it is doubtful whether in the hard winter good and useful clothing was wasted in this way, but those buried without a coffin might have been shrouded in canvas. Log-books and other records show that thirteen people were buried on the island. So seven are still missing and they may well be in the nearby banks. These were not examined due to a lack of time.
So we claim to have found Bering's grave, but can this claim be substantiated? The size of the hole and the coffin-like object are a strong indication although somewhat weakened by the fact that all thirteen graves were not examined. According to our skeleton expert, the age of the deceased person fits very well with the age of 60 reached by Bering. The teeth show no sign of scurvy, but this was in fact not the illness which killed Bering. Of what he died is not quite clear. It could have been peritonitis.
Sven Waxell, who succeeded Bering as leader of the expedition, in his report later submitted to the Admiralty described his predecessor's burial as follows: "His body was tied to a board and put into the ground. All our other dead were buried without a board." This information is important as it seems to say that wood was used only in Bering's grave and "board" may mean the bier-like bottom part of the coffin for which a not too literate person may have had a hard time finding the proper word. One wonders why the body was tied to the board, but this is not of any great significance in the context.
The skeleton of Vitus Bering - as we now dare to call it by name - was taken up whole by pushing an iron sheet under it. It was taken temporarily to Petropavlovsk, the town established by Bering, but examinations completed it will be returned to the island.
While the Danish archaeologists concentrated on the burial-ground, the Russians were busy with other projects, like uncovering a small smithy made by the shipwrecked for building the new ship, on which they were to sail back to the mainland. Sand filled it later, so the forge built of timber and bricks was still undamaged. The four cannons left behind in 1932 were now deeply buried in the sand and were taken up to be taken home. This does not mean that all Bering memories on the island have now been explored. The seven graves remain and it is known that depots were erected for keeping all that which could not be taken along in the small ship, like the large scientific material mostly collected by Steller. One of these depots was actually found, but it could not be examined this time. The shipwrecked obviously intended to come back to retrieve its contents, but this never happened.
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The finding of Bering's grave makes one want to know more about him as a person. In
some commemorative words written by Steller he is described as an ordinary and harmonious
man who was liked by his subordinates, both high and low. He was not a man of quick
decisions and prompt action, but he did his best to carry out the task assigned to him and
regretted that his strength did not always suffice. He could be reproached, however, for
showing too much consideration for those under him, says Steller.