Archeologists return to scene of Swedish defeat

This summer will see the first ever excavation of the battlefield at Poltava in the Ukraine. Researchers are hoping to uncover fresh information about the Swedish army's overwhelming defeat at the hands of Russian forces in 1709.

The archaeological work – led by Bo Knarrström from the Swedish National Heritage Board – is a collaborative effort between Sweden, Ukraine and the USA.

“Poltava was a historical turning point for all of Europe, and it was really the only time that Sweden was involved in shaping world history. Sweden, the great power, was defeated and Russia took its place as a new great power,” said Knarrström.

The defeat of Karl XII at Poltava is well-documented; many historical works have been written on the subject. But all of these are based on the personal memories of survivors.

“They are all completely based on witness testimonies, and you probably already know what the police think of witness testimonies when compared to forensic evidence.

“It was a battle that was so chaotic that there is little to compare it with from a Swedish point of view. There are holes in the known history and disagreements among researchers,” said Knarrström.

The defeat at Poltava was so decisive that it later gave rise to the Russian phrase ‘like a Swede at Poltava’, meaning totally helpless.

The battlefield archaeologists are particularly interested in isolating the weapons that might have caused the enormous Swedish losses. One area of the battlefield is regarded as being of particular interest.

“We will try to localize the famous third redoubt where the Swedish debacle began,” said Knarrström.

The excavations are to be documented in book form and in a television series.

The historian Peter Englund is to act as an advisor to the project. Englund’s book on Poltava has sold over a quarter of a million copies.