Blog post

Stanisław Poniatowski's Siberian expedition

Anthropology collection exploring the art and everyday life of the Nadamurski Region

by
mgr inż. Grażyna Piotrowicz (Director of University Library Wrocław)

Siberia has always tempted travelers and explorers, because of its uniqueness and inaccessibility. Painful historical experiences are associated with Siberia from colonisation to wiping out of indigenous populations through genocide. Those who were exiled and forced to live there often undertook their own research on the indigenous inhabitants of this land, its fauna and flora. The first scientific expeditions to Siberia began at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. One of these was an expedition by the Polish ethnologist and anthropologist Stanisław Poniatowski (1884-1945) to the Nadamurski Region.

black and white photograph of a man wearing a hat sitting on a canoe

Poniatowski's expedition was in line with research of the time which aimed to prove a thesis that Native Americans were of Asian origin. According to this theory, they travelled through the Aleutian Islands and Alaska to the American continent and spread there. The expedition was sponsored by the University of Oxford, the Pennsylvania Museum, the Smithsonian Institution and the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Group of indigenous Siberian children and adults and a white man wearing a hat in the middle of the group all in front of a wooden cabin.

The expedition began on May 10, 1914. Poniatowski arrived first in the village of Sakaczialan in mid-June, accompanied by eight assistants. The research covered mainly the Tunguska peoples, the peoples of Olcz, Gilak, Oroczon and Nanaj.

Black and white photo of an indigenous man sitting on a canoe and a canoe with two other people further away on the water.

The lack of land communication routes, difficulties with the organisation of efficient transport and the use of mainly water routes determined that the research was mostly conducted with the population living along the Amur river.

In addition to anthropometric measurements and photographic documentation, the researchers collected information about the spiritual and material culture of the indeginous people. This resulted in notes about the daily struggles of the Golds and Oroczons people living along the Amur river, environmental difficulties and descriptions of beliefs, holidays, games and other manifestations of social life.

Black and white portrait of an indigenous family with their two children dressed in traditional clothing.

He managed to collect many objects and works of Siberian art, including embroidery stencils and ornaments, cutouts and products made of birch bark, as well as drawings made by the inhabitants of the Sakachialan settlement.

papercut of a mintgreen traditional looking attire with motifs and patterns along the hems and in the middle.
drawing of a triangular object with two figures at the bottom, above them are three wave like shapes, two crosses and one cross at the top. a string attached to the object.

The outbreak of World War I prevented Poniatowski from completing his research. He left Nadamurski Region on August 8, 1914, without complete data. Some of the materials he collected were published only after many years, so the importance of the expedition was underestimated.

black and white photo of a group of indigenous people of all ages standing and sitting in front of a wooden house.

The collection of Stanisław Poniatowski holds a special place in the collection of the Archives of the Polish Ethnological Society. The materials collected during the Siberian expedition were transported to Poland with great difficulty, together with the rest of the scholar's legacy. They have been preserved in good condition for over a century, despite both world wars and changes in the location of the Archives of the Polish Ethnological Society.

An indigenous man holding a circular object standing front of what seems like a makeshift shelter made from wood and other materials.
A group of young indigenous kids and teenagers standing for the camera

The Siberian collection includes photographs, photographic films and glass plates with images of the Golds and Oroczons and pictures of their everyday life. It is a unique material that is a testimony to a world and culture that no longer exists, also due to the technology used to record the expedition. The remainder are journals from the expedition that accurately describe the course of the expedition, drawings of the inhabitants of Siberia, notes and sketches of the ethnologist.

two horizontal paper drawings of ornaments that look like flowers

The complete collection 'Documents and photographs of Stanisław Poniatowski' consists of 7,200 objects from the years 1884-1945 and also includes materials and personal documents of the researcher, lectures, newspaper clippings, paper two-dimensional models of clothes, templates of folk patterns, samples of decorative motifs made of organic materials. The whole collection is an important source of research for representatives of many disciplines of the humanities.


From May 30 to June 3 2022, Wrocław Transcription Week was organised. People from all over Poland, mostly from Wrocław and the University of Wrocław, have worked together to unlock the important historical documents described in this blog.

As part of the Enrich Europeana Plus project, the University of Wrocław - University Library invites you to continue transcribing and enriching the documents presented in this blog and below: