The race to retrieve ancient artifacts from melting glaciers
Swiss scientists believe that only decades remain before areas that have been covered with ice for thousands of years melt away. The melting of the long-frozen snow and ice in the Swiss Alps, and elsewhere around the world, has already yielded numerous ancient artifacts, from hunting tools to goat-skin leggings, shoes, and Otzi the Iceman, the remains of a man who lived more than 5,000 years ago; and they are turning up with more and more frequency as the speed of melting increases.
As part of the efforts to recover buried artifacts, a recent project run by a Swiss cultural institute encouraged alpine hikers to keep a look out for relics uncovered by melting glaciers and to turn over any items found in the Swiss National Park. In Switzerland and beyond, the booming field of glacier and ice patch archaeology represents both an opportunity and a crisis. On one hand, it exposes artifacts and sites that have been preserved in ice for millennia, offering new insights into our ancient past. On the other hand, from the moment the ice at such sites melts, the pressure to find, document, and conserve the exposed artifacts is tremendous.
Ötzi the iceman is the famous ice mummy, who was discovered by some German tourists in the Alps in 1991 and was originally believed to be the frozen corpse of a mountaineer or soldier who died during World War I. Tests later confirmed the iceman dates back to 3,300 BC and most likely died from a blow to the back of the head. He is Europe's oldest natural human mummy and, remarkably, his body contained the still intact blood cells, which resembled a modern sample of blood. His body was so well-preserved that scientists were even able to determine that his last meal was red deer and herb bread, eaten with wheat bran, roots and fruit. A DNA analysis showed him at high risk of atherosclerosis, lactose intolerance, and the earliest known human with Lyme disease.
Otzi the iceman. Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology
In 2006, a woodworker hiking near Lendbreen in Norway came across a well-preserved leather shoe, which incredibly, was last worn in the Bronze Age, some 3,400 years ago. In 2011, another amazing discovery was made – a 1,700-year-old well-preserved tunic made of lamb’s wool.
1,700-year-old tunic recovered from ice. Photo: Mårten Teigen/Museum of Cultural History
Among the items preserved in ice, fabric and leather are the most remarkable—and the most fragile. Wood artifacts may last a few years once they melt out of the ice, but for these items, the clock runs out much faster. Researchers have a week or less to recover leather before it dries out, becomes light and brittle, and blows away.
The Swiss cultural institute is sponsoring the artifact retrieval project through the end of 2015 and will catalogue discoveries so that archaeologists can investigate them further.