Arkæologerne og Vitus Berings grav. En studie i kildetilpasning


  • Natasha Okhotina Lind


The Archaeologists and Vitus Bering’s Grave – a Study in Source Manipulation
In 1991 Danish and Russian archaeologists excavated six graves on Bering Island. The remains in grave No. 6 were identified as Captain-Commander Vitus Bering, leader of the Second Kamchatka expedition, who died December 8, 1741. The remaining five graves were identified as members of his crew. The discovery was surrounded by great publicity, and a facial reconstruction based on the skull in grave number No 6 has been widely accepted as representing Vitus Bering. However, a close analysis of written sources and the anthropological data published by the archaeologists yields different results. It seems that the Russian archaeologists deliberately misinterpreted or even misrepresented both the contemporary sources and the archaeological evidence: 1) The forensic facial reconstruction of the skull in grave No. 6 bears no likeness with the well-known alleged portrait of the seafarer Vitus Bering now in the Central Naval Museum in St Petersburg (fig. 1). When confronted with this, the archaeologists claimed the portrait depicted his grand uncle, poet and historian Vitus Pedersen Bering (1617–75), but the grand uncle’s appearance is well-known from another contemporary painting, and decidedly different from the rounded face of the person in the portrait in the Naval Museum. 2) According to Bering’s second in command, Lieutenant Sven Waxell, Bering was fastened with a rope to a plank and then buried. When the archaeologists found a skeleton buried in a kind of wooden box, Waxell’s description of the plank was turned into a coffin and used to identify the skeleton as Bering’s. 3) A crucifix found in another grave was first claimed to be Siberian but as the skeleton subsequently was classified as a West-European type, the crucifix was reinterpreted as Protestant or Catholic. 4) Despite considerable evidence from contemporary sources that Bering and his crew suffered from scurvy, all six excavated skeletons proved to have fine teeth. In response, the archaeologists and their forensic expert suggested that they had suffered not from scurvy but from a range of diseases with similar symptoms. This explanation fails to account for the quick recovery of the surviving crew members of the crew soon after they were able to take in fresh water and food on Bering Island – just as people who suffered from scurvy had done. 5) The place where the archaeologists decided to excavate was based on the German diary of Georg Wilhelm Steller in a Russian translation from 1928, which reported that Bering had been buried close to his dwelling (Wohnung), located in the northernmost part of the winter camp. However, after the Russian archaeologists returned to Moscow, they discovered that the 1928-translation contained an error and that Steller had in fact written that Bering had been buried close to our (unser) dwelling, that is, where Steller lived with other foreigners at the southern end of the camp. In an attempt to conceal the mistake, the leader of the excavation in 1995 produced a new translation of the diary where he correctly replaced „his“ with „our“ but changed the „dwelling“ of the 1928-translation to the vague, indistinct term pristanishche (refuge, asylum, shelter), which he had previously used to designate the entire winter camp. Thus the Russian reader might still believe they had excavated the correct site. If not the necropolis of the Kamchatka Expedition, then who had the archaeologists uncovered in 1991? Most likely, the six deceased were so-called promyshlenniki (hunters and merchants), who started an intense exploration of the newly discovered island soon after its natural riches became known. They did not have to sail for months to reach Bering Island from Kamchatka so they were never affected with scurvy, and once there, they enjoyed fresh food and water in abundance, hence their fine teeth. In conclusion: Vitus Bering’s burial place is still unknown, but if we want to visualise him, we still have the old portrait, donated to the Central Naval Museum in St Petersburg by his Russian descendants.




Lind, N. O. (2019). Arkæologerne og Vitus Berings grav. En studie i kildetilpasning. Historisk Tidsskrift, 118(2), 118:2, 297–328. Hentet fra