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The Discovery and Early Exploitation of Svalbard. Some Historiographical Notes

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The chronology of the earliest history of Svalbard (Spitsbergen) has been, and still is, a controversial issue in historiography, partly due to inconclusive evidence and lack of sources that open up for different interpretations, but also because of particular interests in this contested region. This survey of a dozen important works shows that historiography reflects the changing national interests in Svalbard over time and the variations in intensity of political debate. By 1920, three different history traditions had established themselves with regard to the question of discovery and early exploitation: the Norwegian “Viking hypothesis”, the Russian “Pomor hypothesis” and the nationally more neutral “Barentsz hypothesis”. While Barentsz' discovery in 1596 is generally accepted as a historical fact, the hypotheses about earlier visits have proved strikingly resilient. The “archaeological turn” around 1970 introduced a fourth hypothesis, the possibility of a Stone Age settlement, and also hopes that new material evidence would finally solve the question of chronology. This has not happened; archaeological research has augmented historiography, but not caused a fundamental shift in positions and interpretations – national historical traditions remain influential.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: August 1, 2005

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