Freigeist Fellowship for Frigga Kruse

One million Euros for research project at Kiel University on commercial hunting in the Arctic


Polar bear on ice floe
© Frigga Kruse

The polar bear is one of the Arctic "Big Five". It feels at home in Spitsbergen.

 Landscape view of Spitsbergen and the water
© Frigga Kruse

Spitsbergen was first mapped in 1596 by the Dutch navigator and explorer Willem Barents. For about 420 years, many nations operated commercial hunting on the archipelago.

Atlantic walruses
© Guy Huylebroeck

Atlantic walruses are also part of the Arctic "Big Five" occurring on Spitsbergen. They were hunted there earlier for bacon and skins.

On Friday 14 September, the Volkswagen Foundation (VolkswagenStiftung) awarded a Freigeist Fellowship to Dr Frigga Kruse from the Institute for Ecosystem Research (ÖSF) at Kiel University (CAU). The prize, which is endowed with one million Euros, was presented by Dr Wilhelm Krull, the Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, at a festive ceremony in Hanover. This is the first time such a prize has been awarded to Kiel. With her research project "Timeless Arctic – Commercial Hunting in the Reconstruction of Human Impact in Svalbard", the archaeologist and geologist wants to investigate the effects hunting by humans has had on the ecosystem in Svalbard. The funding period is five years, and may be extended by up to a further three years.

The aim of the research project is to provide a detailed and reflective overall picture of 420 years of hunting of the Arctic "Big Five" (bowhead whale, polar bear, Atlantic walrus, Svalbard reindeer and Arctic fox). In addition, it should be established how to interpret the effects on the ecosystem today, and whether animal populations are recovering. In doing so, Kruse will also investigate traces of humans, both cultural and social. The starting point, however, lies with the animals.

The "Cool Coast"

Svalbard (Norwegian for "Cool Coast"), better known in the German-speaking area as Spitzbergen, is an archipelago of over 400 islands and islets. It is part of the Arctic and is inhabited by just two and a half thousand people. There were never any indigenous peoples here. However, because of its abundance of furs and skins, Svalbard was still interesting for settlement. The first economic interest on the part of the Europeans already started in 1596, when the Dutch navigator and explorer Willem Barents first mapped the the west coast of the main island. 

Arctic researcher, Dr Frigga Kruse
© Iglika Trifonova

Arctic researcher, Dr Frigga Kruse.

Dr Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, hands over the funding grant amounting to one million Euros to Dr Frigga Kruse
© Philip Bartz für VolkswagenStiftung

Dr Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, hands over the funding grant amounting to one million Euros to Dr Frigga Kruse.

Freigeist Fellow Dr Frigga Kruse on the podium
© Philip Bartz für VolkswagenStiftung

Freigeist Fellow Dr Frigga Kruse from the Institute for Ecosystem Research speaks about her research project “Timeless Arctic – Commercial Hunting in the Reconstruction of Human Impact in Svalbard”.

"Svalbard is particularly interesting because it was a 'no man's land' until 1920 and was claimed repeatedly by Scandinavians, Russians, Dutch, Germans, and Americans, who hunted or conducted mining operations almost unhindered, despite recurring territorial disputes," explained Kruse. Therefore, there are many traces still visible today that provide information about European cultures and customs of the past 420 years. Since 1920, the Svalbard Treaty (which became legally effective in 1925) stipulates Norwegian jurisdiction over the islands. Today, more than 40 countries from all over the world participate in the treaty, which affords them all rights for working, trading and shipping.

A Freigeist Fellow for Kiel

Frigga Kruse has just joined the CAU. Before she was named a Freigeist Fellow and could choose a German university to host her project, the native of Schleswig-Holstein lived and worked abroad for 25 years. She completed her schooling at an international school in the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea. This was followed by a Bachelor degree in archaeology and geology at the University of Glasgow (Scotland), and a Master degree in forensic archaeology at Bournemouth University (England). Kruse then completed her doctorate at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and also took up a postdoc position there as a polar historical archaeologist. There, she encountered Svalbard for the first time. She then moved back to Scotland, from where she has been working as a guide on expedition cruises through Svalbard since 2015, every year between May and September. In doing so, she promoted sustainable Arctic tourism, and continued exploring the area on a small scale.

From Scotland, she applied to the Volkswagen Foundation for funding, and started building up a research network in Germany. It rapidly became clear that the CAU is the right choice for her. "The ÖSF, the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology and the National Research Service Center at the CAU have encouraged my idea from the very beginning and already provided support during the application process. This made it very easy to choose the CAU," said Kruse. "I also wanted to go back to my home state." Her supporters include Professor Hans-Rudolf Bork (ÖSF), Professor Dieter Piepenburg (ÖSF and Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research), Professor Ulrich Müller from the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, as well as Andreas Steinborn (CAU national Research Service Center). Susan Barr from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) will act as a mentor. In addition to her Arctic research, Kruse will also teach at the CAU, providing interdisciplinary input to students. The planning for this is already in full swing.

Combining natural sciences with humanities

Only lateral scientific thinkers who look beyond the boundaries of their own discipline can become Freigeist Fellows. This requires a combination of critical analysis skills with extraordinary perspectives and problem-solving approaches. Kruse, who has never been able to choose only one discipline, has always pursued a dual scientific career as an archaeologist and geologist. "I consider everything from many perspectives, and can make good associations and connections," she said. "Archaeology and geology have many overlapping areas as both of these disciplines deal with historical developments. The one focusses on people, and the other on the planet earth." In order to investigate the overall development of the ecosystem in Svalbard over the last 420 years, as well as today's current status, she wants to analyse as many sources as possible. "This is only possible by working on an interdisciplinary basis, and incorporating both natural sciences and humanities perspectives in the research approach," said Kruse.

Archaeological goldmine

Kruse previously only had the opportunity to investigate some archaeological finds in Svalbard during her postdoc position and to conduct a small midden excavation in 2016. She has spotted new sites and opportunities during the expedition cruises. "Older hunting research in Svalbard has unfortunately only been conducted selectively, and not very extensively," she criticised. Therefore, the Arctic researcher plans a systematic and chronological approach to the collection of data. The starting point for her research is therefore the year 1596, when it all began. To obtain detailed hunting data on the Arctic "Big Five", she reviews the historical evidence such as logbooks of the whaling industry, diaries, travel reports of the ship's doctors, and commercial records. She records which animal was hunted when, and how much. But above all, she relies on in-situ bone assemblages. She doesn’t have to dig deep to reach them, as the archaeological finds are basically just lying at the surface. They simply remain where the people have left them. Some of them are covered by light vegetation such as grass and moss. Digging is only necessary in the rarest cases, and because of the permafrost, only up to about 50 centimetres in depth.

The bones of hunted animals that are already in museum collections will be comprehensively recorded, measured, and dated. However, Kruse also plans to conduct field research. Since she wishes to treat the bone assemblages as part of the cultural heritage, no bones will be removed from the sites and stored in archives, but instead, all data will be recorded on site. In addition, she will investigate historical tourism - which started very early in the area - as well mining activities and early scientific expeditions.

"Archaeology is like peering through a keyhole into a large room," said Kruse to describe her passion. With her systematic approach, she aims to create a solid foundation, which opens the doors for other scientific disciplines. The goal: to inform as many researchers, journalists and members of the public about Svalbard as possible and provide them with access to data. In order to run the project on a supra-regional basis, she plans national as well as international partnerships. In addition, she plans to strengthen cooperation with the Svalbard Museum and the local university (University Centre in Svalbard) in Longyearbyen, the administrative centre of Svalbard. Although the university offers each new student an introductory course in history, it has so far not incorporated the humanities.

Planning phase running at full throttle

Currently, Kruse is in the midst of planning her project, which is expected to start properly in November, once all the bureaucratic hurdles have been completed. In addition, Kruse is searching for a suitable doctoral researcher in archaeology or archaeozoology to join the project for a period of three years and to accompany her on her research trips to Svalbard.

Small midden excavation near a mining settlement on Spitsbergen
© Frigga Kruse

Small midden excavation near a mining settlement on Spitsbergen. Cattle bones were found mainly.

Visible traces of former settlements on Spitsbergen
© Frigga Kruse

There are still many visible traces of former settlements on Spitsbergen.

Nature conservation through public relations

The Arctic researcher is not only a proponent of scientific cooperation, she is also explicitly interested in public relations and popular science publications. Towards the end of her research project, she would like to publish a children's book, to provide child-friendly insight into the hunting history of Svalbard and the topic of the ecosystem. “It’s very important to me, that people learn more about Svalbard and the animal world there," said Kruse. "For me, this not only includes dealing with the past, but also with the future. Through educational books, even very young children can learn more about other habitats and also how to treat the environment respectfully." She would therefore also be delighted to establish contact with schools or other educational institutions and to inform them about her research.

Based on her previous research, Kruse assumes that stocks of the Arctic "Big Five" on Svalbard are gradually recovering after centuries of hunting, even the polar bear population. With her Freigeist research, she hopes to be able to make more precise statements about this, and can imagine further measures: "At the end of this project, it would be conceivable to initiate further sub-projects or follow-up projects, for example isotopic analyses of the bones or digitalisation of the original documents, which could then be recorded in a large database and made available to many researchers. Then, data mining would no longer always have to start from scratch."

About the Freigeist Fellowships:
Freigeist fellowships from the Volkswagen Foundation are aimed at young researchers with a strong personality and a creative mind from all fields and disciplines with up to four years of postdoctoral experience. The junior researchers must have outstanding specialist expertise, the ability to open up new horizons and combine critical analysis with imagination and innovative solutions. The Foundation’s Board of Trustees made eight positive decisions after the approximately 90 junior researchers submitted their project ideas by the deadline last October. Since 2014, up to fifteen Freigeist fellows have been selected each year.

About the Volkswagen Foundation:
The Volkswagen Foundation (VolkswagenStiftung) is a non-profit-making foundation established under private law and based in Hanover. With a funding volume of around €150 million per year, it is Germany’s largest private research funder and one of the country’s biggest foundations overall. Funds are provided exclusively to scientific institutes. In the 50+ years of its existence, the Volkswagen Foundation has funded around 30,000 projects with a total of over €4.7 billion. This is one reason why it is one of the largest non-profit-making foundations in Germany established under private law.



Kiel University:

Dr Frigga Kruse
Institute for Ecosystem Research
Phone: +49 (0)431/880-5009

Volkswagen Foundation:

Jens Rehländer
Head of Communication at the Volkswagen Foundation
Phone number: +49 (0) 511/8381-380

Funding Initiative:

Dr. Johanna Brumberg
Phone number: +49 (0) 511/8381-297

Dr. Oliver Grewe
Phone number: +49 (0) 511/8381-252


Press contact:

(Kopie 18)

Farah Claußen
Press, Digital and Science Communication