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Expedition to Nova Zembla scrapes dirt while looking for 400-year old artifacts

'Dutch team coordinators expected too much' 

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

AMSTERDAM - A joint Dutch/Russian archaeological expedition to the island of Nova Zembla has returned 'home' with video clips of some 170 four-century-old artifacts. The archaeological items are to remain in Russia. This summer, seven Dutchmen and five Russians scraped the soil at the site where sixteenth-century Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz and his small band of men was forced to stay over for a very harsh arctic winter. Barentsz, who survived the ordeal died on the way home.

The twentieth-century expedition experienced its own moments of frustration and disappointment when the generators - which were not adjusted to Russian fuel - malfunctioned and all contact - even by short-wave radio - with the outside world was lost. The joint expedition was without any radio contact for a week, causing its leader Henk van Veen to spend his time on the team's logistics instead on archaeological research.

Deprived of supplies

The Dutch expedition members were unpleasantly surprised when a Russian helicopter pilot demanded seven thousand American dollars to fly over supplies, and perform a few other necessary chores. When Van Veen remarked that the team would rather stay there for the winter, the pilot reluctantly settled for a 'paltry' $280.00.

The supply of food and shelter by the Russians was also below the standards agreed upon. The supply of water was so scarce that it barely serviced the kitchen, only allowing the team to cook their meals and make coffee and tea. There was no water available for any other purpose, not even for washing one's hands. The large tent in which members of the team were to do their work - away from the arctic wind - never made it to the site while the small tents gave hardly any protection against the freezing temperatures (only one day it did dip below the freezing point). A Dutch diplomat in Russia later said that the expedition coordinators probably expected too much from their Russian suppliers by not sufficiently taking into account the Russian situation.


The historic Nova Zembla-site has been and is of considerable interest to many people. The British explorer Gardiner already took many valuable items - for example, navigation and carpenter's tools - along when he dropped by the place in 1876. Russian souvenir hunters and arctic tour operators as of late have discovered the place too, and do not hesitate to drop by when traveling in the area. Dutch archaeologist Louwrens Hacquebord rang the alarm last year when he warned that the site was being stripped of all its archaeological treasures.

Among the 170 artifacts found between moss and dirt are such items as broken tools, the worn sole of a shoe, bits of textile, wool and leather, a hinge and a piece of a frame for a painting, and well-preserved pieces of pork and beef.

In spite of the hardship, members of the expedition team would like to return still one more time to the barren and inhospitable Russian island.