Unearthing the History of Sealing on South Georgia

The Project

The project was developed by the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) as part of their programme of conserving the island’s heritage. A group combining the SGHT and the archaeologists from the University of Cambridge made a 30-day expedition to study the heritage of the 18th and 19th century American and British sealers who worked and lived on South Georgia.

Detailed archaeological survey of the beaches where the sealers worked revealed information that adds to the sparse historical records and gives a better picture of the sealers’ inhabitation of South Georgia and their early impact upon the island’s ecology.

MV Hans Hansson


Following his visit to South Georgia in 1775, Captain James Cook reported the abundance of seals breeding on the island’s beaches. This attracted the attention of predominantly American and British sealers who descended on the island to harvest fur seals and elephant seals for their valuable pelts and blubber respectively.

The sealers were the 19th century equivalent of the better-known 20th century whalers in destroying populations of marine mammals and significantly altering the island’s ecosystem.

Whereas the whaling industry has left ruins of factories, which have been extensively studied, sealing sites have been overlooked. The scattered and fragmentary remains of sealing camps, ship wrecks and a few graves are the only concrete record of the early sealing industry. Little is known of these sites, which today are at risk of destruction and loss.

The most obvious relics of elephant-sealing are large cast-iron trypots, used to render oil from blubber. There are sometimes the remains of the furnaces – tryworks – on which the trypots were mounted. Remains of fur-sealing are known by only a few wooden pegs which were used for staking out pelts to dry. Using archaeological methods, however, further light upon this early industry may be revealed.

Relics of the lives of the sealers are seen in the caves and with remains of stone, brick and wooden huts in shore coves where they camped in what must have been appalling conditions. And there are grave markers that remind us that sealing was a hazardous occupation.

Over the years many artefacts have been removed and lost without detailed record. Now entire sites are threatened by erosion through storms or – ironically – through trampling by the hordes of seals that breed once more on the beaches.

It is important that these sites are comprehensively recorded and artefacts salvaged for their preservation and study before it is too late.

Mapping South Georgia’s dynamic coastal margin

Drone, Photo by Amy Guest, SAERI

Accompanying the expedition was Neil Golding of the Coastal Habitat Mapping Project led by the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) based in the Falkland Islands.

The mapping project used medium resolution (10 metre) satellite imagery with other spatial information and local expert knowledge to develop the first island-wide, broad-scale coastal margin (terrestrial, intertidal and subtidal) habitat maps for South Georgia.

Where there were gaps in these broad-scale maps, or additional information was needed, fine-scale maps were to be developed using very high resolution (5 – 50cm) imagery, from satellites or drones. The drones were flown during the expedition to take high resolution images of the South Georgia coastline, which also provided useful images for the archaeologists.

The habitat models and maps produced by this project will provide an important baseline for use in conservation planning, decision making and monitoring by the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands and other interested organisations.

The coastal mapping project was a truly international collaboration and was supported by the Darwin Initiative through UK Government funding. SAERI were working with Oregon State University, the UK Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Shallow Marine Surveys Group, Falkland Islands Government and Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.

You can find out more on the project website using the link below
or email the project manager, Neil Golding >

Photo Credits:

South Georgia Surveys, Robert Burton, Jill Fruin (MV Hans Hansson photos),
SGHT (museum photo)
Amy Guest, SAERI (drone photo)

The project has completed its work on South Georgia.

The Team

The archaeological team from the University of Cambridge, England, was co-led by Christopher Evans, Executive Director, and senior archaeologist Dr. Marcus Brittain of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), accompanied by Andrew Chaplin and PhD student Ian Ostericher.