All news

Ancient Pomors boat found at the end of the earth. Why it is so important for history

For a few years, specialists were unable to transport the found boat to the mainland
One of the Oransky Islands Irina Skalina/TASS
One of the Oransky Islands
© Irina Skalina/TASS

MOSCOW, July 27. /TASS/. Specialists of the Russian Arctic National Park found on the Oransky Islands a vessel of an outstanding importance for the historical science. The small archipelago near Cape Zhelaniya is a hard-to-reach place, to where ships get only rarely, and quite often the weather conditions would not allow vessels even to approach the coast. For a few years, specialists were unable to transport the found boat to the mainland, but in 2022, they were lucky to achieve the goal. A TASS correspondent joined the Arctic Floating University’s expedition to the Barents Sea and witnessed the process.

Three-hour "surgery"

The ancient Pomors boat, stitched with fir branches, was found on the Eastern Bolshoi Oransky Island (the northernmost part of the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago). Onboard the Professor Molchanov research/survey vessel it was delivered to Arkhangelsk, from where, highly probably, it got to the island hundreds years ago.

The distance between Cape Zhelaniya and the Oransky Islands is about 12 nautical miles (about 22 kilometers). The Professor Molchanov departed from Novaya Zemlya’s northern part late on July 4. Thick fog covered Cape Zhelaniya, and nobody could be sure it would be possible to go ashore on the Oransky Islands. After midnight, the fog retreated. The team, going ashore, featured only the Russian Arctic National Park’s specialists and the expedition’s participant Nikita Yushin, who on his birthday volunteered to assist with the artefact’s evacuation.

"We made a power frame, put into it the keel and two largest side fragments," the national park’s head of the historical and cultural heritage department, Yevgeny Yermolov, looks exhausted though incredibly happy. "It is very fragile, all weathered. We were to lift it cautiously, so as not to break it. There, we carried it on our arms, and then, to lift it onboard, we had to use a crane."

Yevgeny Yermolov Irina Skalina/TASS
Yevgeny Yermolov
© Irina Skalina/TASS

The Arctic Floating University’s leader Alexander Saburov compared the night mission ashore with surgery. The specialists managed to do everything within three hours. They described and took pictures of the location, where the object was, and all the fragments. Then they collected them, making sure they do not miss any parts. They have found about 70 fragments. Noteworthy, many of them are in very good conditions.

"The biggest of them is the whole keel, which is very valuable," Yevgeny Yermolov can’t hide the excitement. "Thus, using these fragments we can reconstruct the boat, the karbas (a medium-sized sailing and rowing fishing and transport vessel), typical for that time, as well as the building technology, since by the ax lines, by the way they drilled here, we can understand the process."

Island of walruses

In 2016, scientists reached the Oransky Islands onboard the Akademik Tryoshnikov research/survey vessel. The purpose was to study walruses - the islands are the giants’ rookery. Back then, the researchers installed cameras at the rookery.

Yermolov was the national park’s representative in that expedition. His task was to make sure polar bears did not threaten the scientists. That time, no bears were on the island. Yevgeny told us how he had taken all the images he wanted and was walking back. On the way from a stone plateau to the sandy coast, he saw wood boards lying in the form of an ellipse, and a long log in the center.

Chances to find remains of a wooden boat in Novaya Zemlya’s north are quite high, as I have seen. Almost in any bay, there are fragments of sides, keels, and oars, which waves bring to the coast. However, it is not necessary to be an expert to see those parts are from the vessels built in the 20th century: nails and other structural elements point, if not to our time, then to recent antiquity. The case with Yermolov’s discovery was different.

Oransky Islands Irina Skalina/TASS
Oransky Islands
© Irina Skalina/TASS

"I saw the boat was unusual, and began studies. What I could see from the very beginning - it was fixed not with rivets. It was sewn with stitches (soft tree roots or twigs, twisted with rope), the stitches were seen clearly along every edge of the boards. I was beyond myself with happiness, like a crazy man," Yermolov laughed. "Back then we landed on a small Kamov Ka-32 helicopter. We asked the pilots if they allowed us to take anything onboard, they allowed only something small. We took fragments of the side, frames and rods."

Those artefacts were brought to Arkhangelsk, preserved and restored. Experts began studies. It was most important to understand how the wood, brought from the Arctic to a city, even quite a cold city, will behave.

The national park’s specialists realized the object was very valuable, and most probably it dated back to the times the Pomors discovered the high-latitude Arctic. The plan was to transport the boat to the Mainland. However, the islands seemed unwilling to let the boat go: either the fog was too thick, or an incredible storm which threw the vessel like a match, or the waves when no landing was possible.

"In addition, COVID-19, which screwed up our plans in 2020," Yermolov added.

At times, they managed to check how the remains were feeling. Clearly, winds were blowing off the sand, which had protected the object from degradation. Besides, the landscape was changing. In 2021, the scientists saw the boat was not inside the soil, but on the surface, which was too bad.

"An artefact’s biggest threats are the sun and winds. The sun destroys cellulose fibers, and they lose the strength. The wind acts like a sandblaster. This mechanical processing of parts makes them thinner."

The wood was drying up, then it got wet from rains, and then got frozen. The boat must be evacuated immediately, or it will turn into chips.

Instead of memoirs and chronicles

We are in a cabin onboard the Professor Molchanov. All the fragments have just been brought up onto the fourth deck. They are numbered and fixed. The vessel is shaking. Yevgeny Yermolov tells us the boat is valuable not only because it is the northernmost discovery in Russia and generally in the Russian Arctic or because no one has found anything like this before.

"In fact, it’s a benchmark proving the Russians, the residents of the Russian state, the Pomors, have been discovering the Arctic and managed to get that far to the north," the expert said. "This is damn difficult, look onboard a modern vessel we are sailing and sailing to Novaya Zemlya’s north, and yet to some locations we are still unable to get. This is a discovery of the State Historical Museum’s or the Hermitage’s level."

Fragments of the boat Irina Skalina/TASS
Fragments of the boat
© Irina Skalina/TASS

Thus, the object proves scientifically the Pomors were exploring the Arctic land and sea at least since the 12th century. The cape, which the Dutch named Den Hoeck der Begeerte ("Cape Desire"), and which on Russian maps is written as Cape Zhelaniya, was named by the Pomors as Cape Getting. The meaning being quite close. A place which sailors dreamed to reach. The Pomors, however, meant also another meaning: if getting to that place becomes possible, then hunting would be successful, which means getting revenues.

Thousands of desperate sailors, long before the Dutch and British expeditions, sailed along the icy archipelago, which was also called Matka (derived from Mother). By the way, the name Novaya Zemlya has long existed on all European maps, no one disputes the priority of Pomors. They were well aware of the entire western sector of the Arctic, they advanced even beyond the Taimyr. But the Pomors have not left any documents, nor did they keep diaries, at least no written evidences have been found, and eventually we call that sea the Barents Sea.

"It hurts me to think - we all know about Nansen, about Barents, they have left memoirs," the expert said. "So, what about the Pomors - the people who went on similar expeditions every year and who probably had dramatic stories and suffered wrecks? How did they live? We know nothing, there are absolutely no sources, because they didn’t record anything. We can restore their history by bits based on indirect data. Including from stories of the discoverers, who, as it seemed to us, followed the footsteps of the Pomors, whom the Pomors must have rescued, whom they must have helped, and for whom they must have been guides. They could prompt how to act in certain situations, because they knew the local navigation conditions. However, we don't know any of their names."

This very boat, stitched with fir branches, is a proof they not just visited those places. They worked there, and it was their everyday life. The boat is not big, which proves, the people traveling to these unfriendly places, were well aware of the conditions. They used different ships for different purposes. Most likely, this boat was brought by a big ship, possibly a lodia. Nobody cared to preserve everyday boats, and thus we are aware of the Pomors’ lodias, Mangazeyan kochs (in 11-19 centuries, traditional Northern Russian vessels, used to discover huge territories from Urals to Pacific Ocean), and at the same time we know practically nothing about the small "workhorses" like karbases. What we do know is that they did exist.

Yevgeny Yermolov and Nikita Yushin Irina Skalina/TASS
Yevgeny Yermolov and Nikita Yushin
© Irina Skalina/TASS

"We’ve found a small vessel, and it’s cool," the historian said. "While kochs at least somehow were used in construction of houses on Mangazey (the first Russian polar city of the 17th century in Siberia, located in the north of Western Siberia, on the Taz River at the confluence of the Mangazeyka River), finding an old karbas (a medium-sized sailing and rowing fishing and transport vessel, one of the main vessels the Pomors used) is almost out of question. And here we’ve found a stitched ship in the very north of Novaya Zemlya."

Stitched with fir branches

Scientists will study the artefact to learn how the Pomors were building their vessels. Legends about the shipbuilders are numerous, and finding the truth is tricky. For example, some say they connected the sides with boiled juniper roots. The truth we know - with fir branches. The sides were made of pine trees, and the boards were overlapping each other.

"They took small seedlings of fir trees - note, not of pine trees. Either small trees, or fresh elastic branches, and had them boiled. The length was fixed. As far as I can understand, about one meter. That was enough for a certain number of stitches. Clearly, when they were sewing a big vessel, they used thicker branches," Yevgeny showed to us the holes with remains of "wooden threads."

Every prepared branch was enough for three or four stitches, made in a certain distance. Into every hole they hammered a wooden pin, to fix the stitches. Then, everything was caulked, tarred, and the boat was ready. It sounds easy, but that was a long and hard work. The Pomors did not have planes or saws. Judging by the traces, they built vessels exclusively with an axe — the axe of a skilled craftsman.

To study and to reconstruct

Before the boat could be taken away from the island, scientists wanted to preserve it - to apply antiseptics and to wrap it for a slow dry-up. However, after the inspection, the decision was not to treat it with any chemical substances. The time the boat leaves the cold shore to the moment the Professor Molchanov returns to Arkhangelsk is about ten days. The vessels sails southwards at a speed of 8-10 knots, which is not quickly, and the air temperature is getting warmer very gradually. Earlier, the boat’s three fragments, taken from the island onboard the Akademik Tryoshnikov, have survived similar conditions pretty well. Yevgeny hoped the wood would get to the mainland safely.

Yevgeny looks like a doctor, observing a patient.

"When in Arkhangelsk, we’ll make boxes, will put the details into them, will cover them with sand or sawdust. They will be extracting the moisture, and in winter already we’ll be able to work with the boat."

To work means to clean, to stabilize with special substances and to describe. Describing is a most important element: to put on a catalogue, to make detailed descriptions of every part, to make photographs and obligatory drawings.

"Value is in everything. This boat has very many available details: the keel, frames, rods (bow and stern), break bars, sides. All the parts were lying right how they had fallen apart."

When this stage is completed, specialists will begin the reconstruction. The descriptions and further reconstruction will require invited specialists, hence investments, Yevgeny added. Anyway, all the stages must be done by all means.

"It would be great if we manage it. Nothing of the kind exists, not a boat of the kind, not a single old Pomors vessel. And probably, none in Russia of a similar preservation rate. Moreover, the idea is even to make a replica."

Everything is realistic, he said. In this country there are people working with old vessels. Even in Arkhangelsk the interest to the Pomors marine culture has grown lately. Thus, the new life of this old Pomors boat begins right now.