The graves were exhumed and, smothered in plaster, the komandorskiye's bones taken to Moscow for forensic examination. And over the months that followed, forensic pathologist Prof. Viktor Zvyagin built a face around Vitus Bering's skull - a task he is particularly skilled to undertake.
as the great explorer - that man never saw a day in the country, much less 17 years in Siberia! Experts concluded 10 years ago that it is the face of the explorer's uncle, also named Vitus Bering... which must be an interesting story, too...
Strangely, or not, the reconstructed features resemble the portly face in the museum, not to mention numerous encyclopedias and Danish beer bottles, NOT AT ALL.
As for the dandy in the oil painting hanging for a couple centuries in the Naval Museum in St. Petersburg, identified for generations
...and, typically, our hero's story doesn't end here!
Alas, poor Vitus...
History is fickle.What is chosen to live on in the collective memory of civilization, or consigned to obscurity, cannot always be rationally explained.
So it is with Vitus Jonassen Bering - fated to be the unremembered hero.
Scholars seriously debate whether Vitus Bering ranks among the luminaries on history's trophy shelf: Cook, Columbus, Magellan... They ask deep questions like, Was ol' Vitus a real Explorer - or just a mere "discoverer," an overly proud lackey carrying out the cryptic orders of a mad czar? Accolades of greatness, some argue, are better awarded to his ship's German doctor, Georg Wilhelm Steller.
Who are we to judge? More of the earth's surface is named for Vitus Bering than any other explorer - the Bering Sea and Bering Straits between Russia and Alaska were named by none other than Captain James Cook, himself something of an authority on the subjects of exploration and discovery.
All Bering scholars and aficianados agree on one thing: the entire story is not known. The full catalogue of log books and records of the time has never resurfaced from Russian archives, and probably never will, so a "final accounting" is not appropriate. In any case, such an accounting cannot be left just to scholars, who by nature (and to justify their existence) must be critical - and who, it is safe to assume, have little practical experience on which to base their judgements. Ever, say, worked on a ship - a fishing boat? Ever been on a real expedition, only the stars to follow? Had lives hanging on decisions made in the field? Away from the ivory tower, bub, life works differ'nt. Sorry if that sounds harsh.
Our imaginations are the mortar between the bricks. In any case, the words of a journalist are not sufficient to tell the tale as it should be told - Vitus Bering's life is an adventure story! Someone tell Bille August! Stellan Skårsgård as VJB! Yes!
Dr. Mikhail Beresovsky & his plaster cast of VJB's skull, on Bering Island
Nor does the story even end here.
That last bit, like the rest of A Life on Blank Paper, was written around 2002 or so, and was based on my experiences accompanying the archaeology expedition of 1991, supplemented by as much historical record and scholarly research as was available at the time.
In the summer of 2008, I think it was, purely by chance I heard about Danish academics who were conducting research on that nation's wayward son, and not long thereafter I met them in their university office in Amager, near central Copenhagen. The pair, a Danish-born man and a Russian-born woman, claimed they had obtained a host of Bering's papers from Russian archives. From them they claimed to have filled many of the holes in the komandorskiye's biography, and brought clarity to some of the obscure passages.
Apparently, the 34-year-old heroic captain of the Russian navy didn't take a 12-year-old Finnish bride, after all. Upon discovering America, he really wasn't so mean to the German botanist Steller - he was more in command of St. Peter than previously believed. And the oil painting that for a couple centuries was assumed to be our hero, but was debunked by Prof. Zvyagin's physical reconstruction of Bering's skull - that face was our hero's after all!
In fact, the duo said, Zvyagin's two renderings were "too heroic." They claimed his results were "influenced" by the expedition's hosts, ultimately the Soviet security apparatus, the KGB. Nor were the graves the expedition found those of St. Peter's crew, but rather the remains from the subsequent shipwreck of a Russian sealer. The entire 1991 expedition, in their opinion, was at best a complete failure; at worst, they implied, it was all pretty much a fraud.If everything really was on the up-and-up, they asked me, Why didn't Zvyagin take DNA samples? Fair question. But their assumptions about the expedition are not correct - their research never bothered to interview any of the archaeologists or scientists who participated in it! Makes me wonder about their own influences.
Suffice to say, academics always have been, and obviously still remain, the bane of Vitus Bering's existence. I've had an eye out for the website they said would "soon" be published - it may be online, I haven't seen it. Somewhere in my old notebooks I have their names, I'm looking forward to catching up on their findings. I am in no position to challenge their assertions - I leave that to somebody else. Perhaps Horsens Museum will someday weigh in.