At Large  April 16, 2019  Chandra Noyes

Melting Glaciers Reveal Stunning Archeological Finds

Courtesy Secrets of the Ice, Photo: Elling Utvik Wammer, Oppland County Council

A Viking Age arrowhead emerges from the ice

Courtesy Secrets of the Ice, Photo: Vegard Vike, Museum of Cultural History.

Bronze Age Shoe

Glacier archeology is a field of study that grows as it shrinks: glacial ice that is disappearing due to climate change is exposing land and remnants of ancient man that have been hidden for thousands of years. As global warming causes glacial ice to melt around the world, the terrain these scientists study is rapidly changing, creating new opportunities, new challenges, revealing new keys to understanding the past. Archeologists in once cold, now warming, climates around the world are scouring the newly revealed terrain and finding incredible artifacts.

Oppland County in Norway is the home of Secrets of the Ice, a group of researchers devoted to this unique practice. Since 2006, they have recovered over 2,000 finds from more than 50 sites, some of them from as long ago as 6,000 years. The objects range from tools to arrows, skis, bones and clothing, many of them lost or left behind by travelers trying to cross high mountain passes.

Courtesy Secrets of the Ice, Photo: Espen Finstad, Oppland County Council.

The discovery of a 300-year-old packhorse skull

Finding these objects no easy task. The mountains of Oppland are rugged, rocky terrain, and only hospitable for travel in August and September. Even during these summer months the weather is unpredictable and snow can impede travel.

Courtesy Secrets of the Ice, Photo: Mårten Teigen, Museum of Cultural History.

Iron Age Tunic

The scientists are also racing against time: once the objects are unfrozen and exposed to the elements, they begin to degrade, and need to be quickly collected for conservation. Ice preserves the delicate objects, but sunlight and oxygen will quickly get to work causing decomposition.

One of the greatest glacier archeology finds was made in 1991 at the mountainous border of Austria and Italy. Ötzi, named for the Ötztal Alps where he was discovered, is Europe's oldest known natural human mummy, and was discovered by hikers, still half-frozen in the ice. Glacier archeology was still a developing field at this time, and opened archeologists and historians eyes to a whole new world of possible discoveries available at higher altitudes.

Courtesy Secrets of the Ice, Photo: Espen Finstad, Oppland County Council

1500-year-old arrowhead

While an intact prehistoric mummy may be the holy grail for glacier archeologists, numerous other valuable finds have been illuminating. Last year, Swiss skiers discovered the remains of a couple that had gone missing from their home in 1942, found perfectly preserved in the now melting ice. Planes downed in the Alps during World War II have also been recovered. As global warming trends prevail, glacier archeologists will continue to scour mountain passes for the next clue to the mysteries of the distant and not-so-distant past.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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