Glacial ice deposits have been holding thousands of years of artifacts from pre-ice-age periods like the neolithic and bronze age. Some of these are almost perfectly preserved and are now surfacing for us to discover as the ice in Norway glacial deposits has melted drastically in recent times due to climate change.
The country’s highest mountain passes were traversed by hunters and travelers over the last 6,000 years. Despite rising temperatures uncovering these artifacts for the first time, the vanishing ice is also a threat to their re-discovery. putting them at risk.
“If something fragile like textile melts out, dries and is windblown it might be lost to science very quickly. Or an arrow might be exposed and then covered again by the next snow, within a few weeks, and remain well-preserved. The unpredictability means the fieldwork, led by Lars Pilø of Oppland County Council, Norway, needs to be well-timed and systematic,” said study co-author archaeologist James Barrett of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.
Well above the tree line in Norway’s highest mountains, ancient fields of ice are shrinking as Earth’s climate warms. As the ice has vanished Neolithic arrows, scraps of clothing from the Bronze Age were revealed, as well as skis from Viking Age traders. And those artifacts have provided some surprising insights into how ancient Norwegians made their livings.
Materials like wood, and other organics like textiles, and hides are relatively rare finds at archaeological sites—unless they’re protected from the microorganisms that cause decay, they don’t tend to last long. Extreme cold is one reliable way to keep artifacts relatively fresh for a few thousand years, but once thawed out, these materials tend to degrade quickly.
At the edges of the contracting ice patches, archaeologists found more than 2,000 artifacts, which formed a material record that ran from 4,000 BCE to the beginnings of the Renaissance. Many of the artifacts are associated with reindeer hunting. Hunters would have easily misplaced arrows and “scaring sticks”—poles with wooden flags that hunters would set up in rows to channel reindeer toward waiting bowmen—and they often discarded broken bows rather than lug them all the way home. Other items could have been used either by hunters or by traders traversing the high mountain passes of Oppland: all-purpose items like tools, skis, clothes, and horse tack, along with “incidental evidence of human journeys,” or, in lay terms, “horse dung.”
Norway’s mountains are probably still hiding a lot of history—and prehistory—in remote ice patches. When Barrett and his colleagues looked at the dates for their sample of 153 artifacts, they noticed a gap with almost no artifacts from about 3800 to 2200 BCE. In fact, archaeological finds from that period, just at the end of the Stone Age, are rare all over Norway.
With climate change shrinking ice cover around the world, glacial archaeologists are racing the clock to find these newly revealed artifacts, preserve them, and study them.