Svalbard has a rich cultural heritage, and visitors will find traces of human activity everywhere. There is little soil, so even the oldest traces are exposed, each one of them evoking a story, be it of hardship and tragedy or of intrepid hunter-trappers or amazing expeditions. Against a backdrop of severe conditions, the artifacts are telling memorials of the past. The Svalbard Environmental Protection Act states that all traces of human activity dating from 1945 or earlier are protected elements of the cultural heritage.

Stationary and Unattached Artifacts
The protection applies to stationary as well as to unattached artifacts. Examples of stationary artifacts are all buildings and ruins, plants and traps. Unattached artifacts might be the remains of trapping devices, bones, tools, ammunition, cartridge shells, shards of pottery or glass, pieces of chain and wire, soles of shoes, hoops and stove rings. Human graves, or traces of them, skeletal remains, crosses and inscriptions are protected regardless of their age. The same applies to bones and hunting tools on slaughtering grounds for walruses, beluga whales and polar bears killed with spring guns.

Vulnerable Treasures
The artifacts in Svalbard are vulnerable treasures that keep well in the dry and cold climate. However, they are exposed to the ignorance of passers-by. People trample on the boiling stations, displace stones from old graves and poke at gear that has been left behind. Objects are tucked into pockets and bags. A button or a dulled blade outside a hunter-trapper station has a story to tell. It loses its value when removed from its context. Every year, tens of thousands of people visit the monuments, and such pilfering could very easily reach horrendous dimensions. Needless to say, such conduct is forbidden. Destruction or removal of objects, whether stationary or unattached, is a punishable offence and will lead to heavy fines. The protection also applies to a security zone extending for 100 meters in all directions from the perimeter of the memorial. Within the security zone, it is prohibited to set up camp, to light a fire or to leave any other traces.

The artifacts are exposed to wear and tear from the forces of nature as well as from humans passing by. Consequently, the Governor of Svalbard has laid out a "Plan for Memorials in Svalbard 2013-2023" Amongst the goals, we find the following:

  • To protect and sustain artifacts in Svalbard in view of coherent environmental management.
  • To sustain resources for scientific reference.
  • To sustain resources for the benefit of present and future generations.

This is part of MOSJ (Environmental Monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen).

Registers and Databases
Every year the Governor of Svalbard systematically records artifacts in Svalbard. This work has been going on since 1976 and provides the basis for a Svalbard artifact database. The first are entered into an National electronic database called Askeladden.

Emergency Excavation
Many of Svalbard's artifacts are in the sea where they are liable to be damaged by storms. When an artifact risks collapsing, the Directorate of Cultural Heritage may cancel protection in order to allow excavation. In such cases the site will be handled professionally, duly documented, and the objects will be treated and stored.

Thanks to the cold and dry climate in Svalbard, objects keep well. Consequently, there are many protected buildings on the archipelago. A number of them are important memorials of the life led by hunters and trappers, scientists and miners. For years, the Governor has been restoring buildings such as Tobiesenhuset on Bjørnøya, Svenskhuset in Isfjord, the old huts at Kapp Wijk and Fredheim, Hyttevika north of Hornsund, Camp Morton in Van Mijenfjord, Camp Smith in Recherchefjord and also various buildings in Ny-Ålesund and Hiorthamn.

The protected sites in Svalbard are very recent - everything that is older than from 1946 automatically enjoys protection. This means that Svalbard has protected a number of buildings and objects that would not have been protected on the mainland or abroad. The Governor of Svalbard has several pamphlets on the memorials. There are pamphlets for instance about Villa Fredheim, Hiorthhamn, Virgohamna, Gravodden /Smeerenburg, Isfjord and Longyearbyen.