OBITUARY:Count Eigil Knuth

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Because of its centuries under Denmark (from 1721 to 1979 it was a colony), Greenland has always engrossed Danish polar explorers. Eigil Knuth was a distinguished member of their company. He was the last Arctic explorer in the classic mould.

Count Eigil Knuth was born in Klampenborg, near Copenhagen, in 1903. Having completed his schooling, he first studied building technology at the Academy of Arts in Copenhagen but, possessing artistic talent, then learnt woodcarving in Val Gardena in Italy between 1926 and 1928. Meanwhile, in 1927, he published his first book, Kunst og Liv ("Art and Life"), in which he set out his philosophy. He revealed an affinity with the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, and hence appeared as an early Existentialist. More to the point, he saw art as a flight back to Nature.

Knuth first went to Greenland in 1932, on an archaeological dig run by the Danish National Museum to excavate old Norse sites on the west coast of Greenland. To the Danes, the medieval Norse colonisation of Greenland, from the 11th century until its mysterious disappearance in the 15th century, has meant a peculiarly close historical link with their Arctic dependency; in any case, Knuth had begun a lifelong love affair with Greenland.

He was following in the footsteps of his hero, Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian polar explorer who, in 1888, made the first crossing of the Greenland ice-cap, and opened modern polar exploration. In fact, Knuth's maternal grandfather, Augustin Gamel, a Danish businessman, financed Nansen's expedition.

In 1935, Knuth joined Augustine Courtauld's climbing expedition to east Greenland as archaeologist. Together with another Danish archaeologist, Knuth discovered and excavated an old Eskimo site in Irmin-ger Fjord, and that gave him the direction of his life's work. Thenceforth, Eskimo life and culture preoccupied his thoughts.

During the summer of 1936, Knuth crossed the Greenland ice-cap west to east with the French Trans-Greenland Expedition under Paul-Emile Victor. Starting at Christianshaab, and ending at the Eskimo settlement of Angmagsalik, it was a trying journey of over 800km, but only a means to an end. It was the quickest way of reaching the destination.

Anthropology was the expedition's aim. Knuth set up a studio in Angmagsalik and there, in the ensuing winter, produced a series of busts of the local Eskimos. This was his main artistic production. Sensitive, lively, free of cloying romanticism, they captured the nature of the east Greenland Eskimos.

Thereafter, Knuth devoted himself to archaeology, constantly returning to Greenland. During the Second World War, he was trapped in Denmark by the German occupation. This interrupted his great work.

In 1938, Knuth had begun leading a series of archaeological expeditions to north-east Greenland. He resumed in 1947, continuing on and off until 1973. The upshot was the discovery of two hitherto unknown prehistoric Eskimo cultures in the uninhabited environs of Independence Fjord and Danmarks Fjord. Dated to the last two millennia BC, they provided a key to the archaeology of Greenland, confirming that the country was populated by migration from North America.

Knuth made one foray outside Greenland, to Thailand, in 1961. He joined a Thai-Danish expedition to investigate the country's almost unknown prehistory. Otherwise, he remained devoted to the Arctic. He was an early exponent of the kind of archaeology that is fused with anthropology in order to use the present to offer clues to the past.

Lively and idiosyncratic, Knuth was an unfashionably invincible admirer of Robert E. Peary, the American explorer, vigorously rejecting all the doubts over whether he really did attain the North Pole in 1909. This caused some disagreement with the Danish Geographical Society, of which he was a lifelong member.

Knuth was a link between the last generation of polar explorers who probed the last blank spaces on the globe, and the modern travellers left to invent new challenges and fill in the gaps. He saw the exploration and surveying of Greenland com-pleted. He was an inspiration for the younger generation of Danish explorers in Greenland.

He published 12 books and various articles on aesthetics, archaeology and polar history. His feelings for Greenland were revealed in Aron of Kangek (1968), a book about the medieval Norse colonists and their enemies, the Skraelings, the ancestors of the modern Eskimos. Of Aron, a native Greenland Eskimo artist and writer of the last century who recorded his own story of Norsemen in Greenland, Knuth wrote:

Greenland publishes her counterpart to the sagas . . . concerning events during the Norse era - a living proof that the Skraelings remain the final victors in the struggle with the Norsemen.

Knuth ended one of his books: "The riddle of the Sphinx has been solved!" Like many explorers, however, he remained a little Sphinx-like himself.

Roland Huntford

Eigil Knuth, archaeologist, sculptor and writer: born Klampenborg, Denmark 8 August 1903; died Copenhagen 12 March 1996.