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Category: history

Natural environments in Seili (part 1)

For those who enjoy the outdoors, the nature of Seili offers unique experiences. In this post series, you’ll find everything you need to know on exploring Seili island’s lesser-known natural wonders. In this first post, we’ll introduce the different natural environments of Seili. Later, we will focus for example on species restoration, habitat conservation, and endangered species found on the island.

Heritage landscape in the middle region of the island. View from the White house towards Lembergsviken. Photo: Tommi Pohjakallio.

The diversity of environments is a typical characteristic of the middle archipelago region. Distinct feature for Seili is traditional farming and settlements, which have left its traces in the landscape. The first fields in Seili were cleared in the Middle Ages and grazing animals have altered the surroundings. Due to mans clearing of forests into fields, meadows and grazing grounds, many plant species have also spread to new areas.

Professor Mikko Niemi’s sheep used to graze freely on the island in the 1990s. Photo: ARI’s archives.

Since 2013, cattle have been again grazing on Seili. The aim is to restore the landscape to its 19th-century state when the practice of grazing was more common. Photo: Tommi Pohjakallio.

After the closing of the hospital, the buildings, and land and sea-areas of Seili were divided between the University of Turku, the Finnish Forest Research Institute (Metla) and the Archaeological Commission. The state-owned forest areas were included in the Solböle research forest area and, consequently, several non-native tree species were planted in the open fields and meadows, some of which can still be found on Seili today. Metla administered the state-owned forests until 1995 after which the administration was put in the hands of Metsähallitus Parks and Wildlife Finland. Nowadays Seili is involved in a range of biodiversity protection programmes, including Natura 2000 and the Shore Conservation Programme. The buildings and historical artifacts and sites are also protected. For these reasons, open fire, camping, digging etc. are not permitted on-site. To prevent erosion, visitors are also requested to stay on existing roads and paths.

The current natural environment on the island can be divided into three parts: the lush and rich herb-rich forest in the south, the open heritage landscape in the center and the rugged north, dominated by coniferous trees. The rarest habitats on Seili are the large hazelnut bush herb-rich forests on the southern part and rocky grasslands in the center.

Lush hazelnut bush herb-rich forests are found at the southern end of the island. Photo: Katja Mäkinen.

The rugged landscape of the north. Most of the forest area here is classified as natural forests. Photo: Katja Mäkinen.

Walking towards Kirkkoniemi, the most notable land formation is a tombolo, a deposition formation. The tombolo ties together the main island of Seili and Kirkkoniemi, which used to be separate islands still in the mid- 19th century! Photo: Milla Aironsalmi.

Field cow-wheat (Melampyrum arvense), a vulnerable, protected species, grows rather abundantly on Seili. Earlier it was considered as a problematic field weed, but disappeared, apparently due to a change in farming methods.  Photo: Milla Aironsalmi.

Sharp-eyed visitors may spot some species, such as the vulnerable field cow-wheat (Melampyrum arvense), and soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) and Burnet rose (Rosa spinosissima), favoured by traditional farming practices and/or other human activities, in the center and next to the main building. In the future, visitors may familiarize themselves better with these plants, as we are planning to restore an old park and garden of useful plants, which existed next to the main building in the 19th century. Also, a nature trail, offering the traveller a relaxing and refreshing experience to the natural habitats found in Seili, is in the plans for the future.

An old stone fence and possibly the remains of a gate can be spotted near the main building, which used to be part of an old park and garden of useful plants. Photo: Mikko Helminen 2012 Seili archeology project.

Check out this beautiful aerial video from Seili by Timo Oksanen Productions:

References and more information (In Finnish):

  • This post is mostly based on the report of Metsähallitus Parks and Wildlife Finland, written by Leif Lindgren in 2007 (In Finnish). Metsähallituksen luonnonsuojelujulkaisuja 2007. Sarja B.
  • Mikko Helminen, Taina Niemi 2012. Seilin saaren opastusjärjestelmän uudistus. Saaristomeren tutkimuslaitos, Turun yliopisto.
  • Mikko Helminen 2012. Kohteiden Seili Mielisairaalanpuisto, Seili Skreddarens hus ja Seili Kirkkoniemi (Myllymäki 6) tarkastukset sekä kohteiden Seili Utridarens tomt ja Seili Dårhusen koetutkimukset vuonna 2011. Seilin arkeologia hanke, Arkeologian oppiaine ja Saaristomeren tutkimuslaitos.
  • Marja Mikkola 1993. Seilin kirkon lähiympäristön maisemanhoidon toimenpideohjelma. – Museovirasto, MA-Arkkitehdit. Moniste. 24 s

Interdisciplinary coexistence

To the general public, the island of Seili is perhaps most famous for its 350-years long history as a leprosy and mental hospital island. The colorful stories and faiths of patients intrigue, horrify and feed visitors imaginations. The history of Seili has also been a central part of our activities. Throughout the years, several scientific publications and thesis’s have been conducted on the topic together with other departments within and outside the University. In an inherent way, the history and nature of the Seili island have made the Archipelago Research Institute into a multidisciplinary environment where humanists, natural scientists, and artists can meet and work closely together.

Not only natural science. The colorful past of the island interests e.g. historians and gender researchers. Photo : Milla Airosalmi.

To showcase this side of our activity, here we will post a synopsis of a blog post that was published in the museum church project’s blog in 2016 by Milla Airosalmi, a former church guide of ours. For those interested in knowing more details about the history of Seili, we recommend taking a scroll down the museum church project’s blog! Due to the recent organisational changes at our Institute, the blog is no longer updated but several stories and research information can be found from its archives!

Search for the lepers

At the end of July 2016, something odd was happening next to the museum church – several people and a dog were exploring the church grounds and digging test pits. The activity was part of a 4-day international workshop and seminar called Archaeogenetics in the Archipelago, which aim was to bring together archaeologists, geneticists, affiliates and other interested parties.

Archaeologists at Kirkkoniemi in July 2016. Behind is the museum church, built in 1733. Photo : Taina Niemi.

The excavations at the church garden were lead by Petro Pesonen, an archaeologist working in the Finnish National Board of Antiques, who also kindly provided us with some information about the project to share with you today.

The excavations had two goals: 1. To find a missing graveyard, containing leprosy patients’ remains and take some samples for leprosy bacteria analyses. The 2. aim was to train a Parson Russell Terrier called Hekla to locate buried human bones by scent. Using dogs in archaeology sites has become quite common as any breed can be trained as one. In Finland, however, this is still relatively rare.

Finland’s first archaeology dog ready for action. Photo: Taina Niemi.

In addition to an archaeology dog, the researchers also relied on a terminal ground resistance tester, which determines soil conductivity and, thereby, provides insight into depositions, and underground structures. In this project, the use of this device and genetic methods and the expertise of researchers (bioarchaeologists) was especially important as archaeology dogs cannot tell the difference between leper and non-leper graves.

The remains of mental hospital patients, staff, and their offspring are buried in the graveyard, located behind the museum church. Photo: Lisa Svanfeldt-Winter

Alas, the leper’s burial site was not found. According to a local tale, the graveyard should be found from a meadow, located behind the memorial cross, mounted in the 1980s. However, this is most likely not true as the meadow is too clayey and low-lying for a graveyard. A more probable location for the graveyard is below the church, which is probably the reason why the location of the burial site has remained a mystery to this day. Nevertheless, the excavations were not a total loss as other interesting discoveries were made, for example some household artifacts from the 17th and 18th century, indicating that one of the lepers’ building had burned down at some point. The second aim was also fulfilled as Hekla received a lot of valuable training. The project continues and perhaps, Hekla and her human colleagues will return to Seili and the search for the lepers’ resting place will continue..

Seili is a place where colorful history and diverse natural environments meet.

Student! Interested in working and writing your thesis in Seili? The Archipelago Research Institute’s Seili-fund provides funding to students working with archipelago and Seili-related topics. Contact us for more information!