Climate change reveals ancient artefacts in Norway’s glaciers | Climate change reveals ancient artefacts in Norway’s glaciers
Well above the treeline in Norway’s highest mountains, ancient fields of ice are shrinking as Earth’s climate warms. As the ice has vanished, it has been giving up the treasures it has preserved in cold storage for the last 6,000 years – items such as ancient arrows and skis from Viking Age* traders. And those artefacts have provided archaeologists with some surprising insights into how ancient Norwegians made their livings.
Organic materials like textiles and hides are relatively rare finds at archaeological sites. This is because unless they’re protected from the microorganisms that cause decay, they tend no to last long. Extreme cold is one reliable way to keep artefacts relatively fresh for a few thousand years, but once thawed out, these materials experience degradation relatively swiftly.
With climate change shrinking ice cover around the world, glacial archaeologists need to race the clock to find newly revealed artefacts, preserve them, and study them. If something fragile dries and is windblown it might very soon be lost to science, or an arrow might be exposed and then covered again by the next snow and remain well-preserved. The unpredictability means that glacial archaeologists have to be systematic in their approach to fieldwork.
Over a nine-year period, a team of archaeologists, which included Lars Pilø of Oppland County Council, Norway, and James Barrett of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, surveyed patches of ice in Oppland, an area of south-central Norway that is home to some of the country’s highest mountains. Reindeer once congregated on these ice patches in the later summer months to escape biting insects, and from the late Stone Age**, hunters followed. In addition, trade routes threaded through the mountain passes of Oppland, linking settlements in Norway to the rest of Europe.
The slow but steady movement of glaciers tends to destroy anything at their bases, so the team focused on stationary patches of ice, mostly above 1,400 metres. That ice is found amid fields of frost-weathered boulders, fallen rocks, and exposed bedrock that for nine months of the year is buried beneath snow. ‘Fieldwork is hard work – hiking with all our equipment, often camping on permafrost – but very rewarding. You’re rescuing the archaeology, bringing the melting ice to wider attention, discovering a unique environmental history and really connecting with the natural environment,’ says Barrett.
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