skip to primary navigationskip to content

The South Georgia Archaeological Project

last modified May 29, 2019 08:12 AM
Archaeological expedition reveals tantalising evidence of the life and harsh working conditions endured by 18th-20th century 'sealers' of South Georgia



The seal, whose skins are thus an article of Commerce, are found here in greater numbers in the Summer than in the Winter, when they generally keep in deep water and under the weeds, which shelter them from the inclemency of the weather. In the summer months they come ashore, sometimes in droves of eight hundred or a thousand at a time, out of which about an hundred are destroyed; that number being as many as five men can skin and peg down to dry in the course of a day. Little of the oil, which these animals might furnish, is collected, for want of casks to put it in; part of the best is boiled and serves those people instead of butter.

Extract from ‘an account of the islands of St. Paul and Amsterdam, taken from Sir George Staunton’s narrative of the embassy to China’ – ‘The True Briton’. From entries for September 23 & 25, 1797.


Such was the situation for the intense seasonal population on the island of South Georgia. The initial exploitation of the vast fur seal population for pelts during the late-18th and early-19th centuries was soon overtaken by seal-oil production up to the early-20th century.

The archaeological expedition to this remote British Overseas Territory has just returned after four weeks of fieldwork. Working from and living on board the small vessel, Hans Hansson, the team assessed the different levels of impact of the sealing activities by conducting an initial survey of the island’s many sites. Ironically, many of these sites are now threatened by the ‘beach-lolling’ of South Georgia’s expanding seal population - a four tonne Elephant Seal can do a lot of damage to a fragile site!

Along with stunning drone photography, there are plenty of relics of archaeological significance associated with these late-18th to early-20th century sealing activities. Located in a variety of bays and harbours, not only are there traces of how seal pelts were exploited, but also the techniques of oil production and the way the sealers lived on shore.



The field-team was led by co-director of the project, Dr Marcus Brittain, of the University’s Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), with Andrew Chapman (CAU), and PhD student Ian Ostericher (Department of Archaeology), and supported from afar by co-director Christopher Evans and Dr Oscar Aldred (both CAU), as well as Bob Burton of the South Georgia Heritage Trust

Accompanying the team, were half a dozen citizen scientists, working alongside the Cambridge archaeologists, carrying out surface survey and targeted excavations. The team found and recovered artefacts and remains that hint at something of the life and harsh working conditions endured by the ‘sealers’.

The artefacts identified so far suggest a rather sparse material culture assemblage, with mainly functional items such as cooking implements and tools, some personal items of those people seasonally inhabiting the island, such as a clay pipe, but also remnants of the oil production itself.

For example, a seal pelt found at one of the sites may provide insights into the island’s historical seal populations. The pelt appears to have been dipped in oil to be used as a torch; future research will include XRF (X-ray fluorescence) analysis to help to determine metal impurities, and to carry out DNA analysis to determine the exact species. Furthermore, timber samples from five investigated structures will help to determine the provenance of the wood via isotope analyses; DNA analysis may also help with species identification, if not evident at a macro-scale.

Check out the blog series from the team during the expedition: And, for updates on the fieldwork, citizen science, and drone and coastal habitat mapping project (led by Neil Golding of the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute [SAERI]), visit the SAERI Facebook page or follow @SG_Archaeology on Twitter.

The fieldwork was funded by the South Georgia Heritage Trust, plus the Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, National Geographic, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, South Georgia Association, Shackleton London and Iridium.

RSS Feed Latest news

Lecturer in Comparative Human Biology announced

Jul 12, 2019

Dr Rihlat Said Mohamed announced as new lecturer in the Department of Archaeology

Gorillas found to live in ‘complex’ societies, suggesting deep roots of human social evolution

Jul 10, 2019

Gorillas have more complex social structures than previously thought, from lifetime bonds forged between distant relations, to “social tiers” with striking parallels to traditional human societies, according to a new study.

View all news