Norway’s Melting Glaciers Release Over 2,000 Artifacts

January 30, 2018

Spanning 6,000 years, the well-preserved items hint at the history of mountain dwellers

There’s a reason history museums are packed with stone statues, pottery and arrow heads—these things resist decay while exposed to hundreds (or even thousands) of years in the sun, wind and rain. It’s rare to find organic materials, like a woven shawl or a leather shoe, but there’s at least one circumstance when these types of artifacts survive: when they’re frozen in ice.

Glaciers and permafrost hold many of these treasures, but as climate changes they’re releasing their haul to the elements. And as Kastalia Medrano at Newsweek reports, this is exactly what’s happening in Norway. A group of glacial archaeologists have recovered over 2,000 artifacts from the edges of Norway’s glaciers, and the find promises to help researchers better understand the history of mountain populations.

Archaeologists from the United Kingdom and Norway have surveyed the edges of glaciers in Norway’s highest mountains in Oppland since 2011 as part of the Glacier Archaeology Program and its Secrets of the Ice Project. They’ve uncovered thousands of objects that date as far back as 4,000 B.C., including wooden skis, near complete bronze-age arrows and wooden shafts, Viking swords, clothing and the skulls of pack horses.

″[In] the glaciated mountain passes, you can find basically anything,” Lars Pilø, co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program tells Medrano. “Obviously because of the fantastic artifacts there’s a lot of focus on the individual finds. But I think what is more important, perhaps, is the bigger picture.”

Researchers have begun drawing conclusions from their extraordinary finds in a new article published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. Researchers were able to get ages for 153 of those thousands of objects, discovering that the recovered artifacts were not spread out evenly over time. Some eras saw a clustering of artifacts while others saw relatively few.

Upon closer examination, says senior author James H. Barrett of the University of Cambridge, some peaks in artifact numbers stood out immediately. “One such pattern which really surprised us was the possible increase in activity in the period known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age (c. 536 – 660 AD). This was a time of cooling; harvests may have failed and populations may have dropped,” he says. “Remarkably, though, the finds from the ice may have continued through this period, perhaps suggesting that the importance of mountain hunting (mainly for reindeer) increased to supplement failing agricultural harvests in times of low temperatures. Alternatively, any decline in high-elevation activity during the Late Antique Little Ice Age was so brief that we cannot observe it from the available evidence.”

Barrett says another spike in artifacts comes between the 8th and 10th centuries. That’s a period when the population of the area increased as did trade and mobility, eventually leading to the Viking Age when the peoples of Norway began expanding outward. The desire in rising urban centers for more mountain goods could have driven more hunters onto the ice.

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