Western sources provide information about meetings between Western whalers and Russian trappers in Svalbard. Among others, the Englishman Conway describes a convivial meeting between Englishmen and Russians in Smeerenburgfjorden in 1779. The meeting was particularly cordial; the men drank each other’s health and exchanged gifts. The Englishmen noted the Russians’ somewhat extraordinary appearance and attire: ‘All the Russians had long hair and beards, fur caps on their heads, brown sheepskin jackets with wool lining on the outside, and high boots.’
Long hair and beards were not fashionable in Western Europe at this time. In Russia they were even prohibited. Peter the Great banned long beards as early as 1705, and those who broke the law faced fines or imprisonment. In Svalbard, the Russians were miles away from ‘the long arm of the law’ and could wear their hair and beards however they liked without interference.
Beards and hairdos were a challenge where personal hygiene was concerned. We know that the trappers lived in close quarters in their huts throughout the long winter, and cleanliness was an absolute necessity. The Russians always constructed a bathhouse – a banya – at their trapping stations, and these were probably used frequently. Back home near the White Sea it was customary to take a sauna once a week. The need to comb the tangles from hair and beard after a visit in the ‘banya’ undoubtedly prompted the carving of the louse comb from Skolteneset and its frequent use at the trapping station.
The comb is in good enough condition that it could be used to this day. Why was it left behind at Skolteneset?
Skolteneset was one of the Russians’ main trapping stations in Svalbard. Russian trappers from the White Sea region trapped there throughout the winter in the 18th and 19th centuries. The area was exceptionally good for walrus hunting, and written sources reveal that in 1819, Russian hunters caught more than 1200 walruses in just two days on these beaches. Skolteneset was excavated in the 1980s and yielded a rich trove of artifacts: pottery, tools, and many types of hunting gear, but also abundant remnants of hides and leather. Flat bones suitable for making combs were also found. It is apparent that the trappers who spent winters here produced far more mittens, shoes, and combs than they needed for themselves. During the dark season, when polar night and drifting snow made outdoor hunting activities impossible, they made products to sell at the market in Arkhangelsk when they got home.
Just outside the trapper’s cabin at Skolteneset, there are ten graves and the remains of a Russian Orthodox cross. Excavations at the cabin revealed two skeletons under the floor. The Russian polar explorer Vladimir Vize writes that 22 dead Pomors had been found at Sørkappøya in 1837. An entire Russian hunting party died during the winter of 1837. The tragedy at Skolteneset was probably caused by scurvy – not an uncommon occurrence in the history of trapping in Svalbard. The comb from Skolteneset, like its owner, did not leave the trapping station on Sørkappøya until archaeologists dug it up over a hundred years later. Now it lies in storage at Svalbard Museum, a daily reminder of the harsh winter of 1837 when 22 Pomors lost their lives.