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Rapidly Melting Norwegian Ice Exposes Land Littered with Ancient Arrows

Rapidly Melting Norwegian Ice Exposes Land Littered with Ancient Arrows

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Dozens of ancient arrows dating from the Neolithic to the Viking Era have melted out of the Langfonne ice sheet in Norway.

In 2014 and 2016, reindeer bones and antlers, stone and river shell arrowheads, and iron points were exposed from Norway’s 60-acre Langfonne ice patch. Now, a collection of 68 ancient arrows, with some dating back 6,000 years, have been discovered at the same site, as this ice sheet rapidly melts and reveals its ancient secrets.

Ancient Arrows in the Icy North

A new paper about the discovery has been published in the journal  Holocene, and describes the recent haul of 68 arrows and five arrowheads as “record setting.” While some of the weapons are dated to the Neolithic period, others are from the 14th century AD, and each and every one is a time capsule containing information about ancient hunting crafts.

Examples of arrows found at Langfonne. (Lars Holger Pilø et al./The Holocene, 2020)

Examples of arrows found at Langfonne. (Lars Holger Pilø et al./ The Holocene , 2020)

Co-author of the new study, Dr. Lars Pilø, is a cofounder of Secrets of the Ice . Last year he emailed Ancient Origins with details of an arrow dated to 1374-1118 BC, and a ski from 600 BC. The oldest artifacts, according to Pilø, are recovered from the deepest core of the ice patch. What this means is that early hunters had tracked creatures into the ice sheet that were avoiding been bitten by insects during the summer months, and their broken bows, ancient arrows, and hunting knives are now melting out .

The Ancient Arrows were Tossed Around in Turbulent Frozen Tundra

The oldest artifacts at Langfonne have been dated back to the Neolithic period and are in the most part fragmentary, having spent six thousand years being churned around by the ice, exposed to sun and wind, then locked away again. Pilø says this theory is evident in the discovery of arrows from 1,500 years ago made with “sharpened mussel shells ” that were discovered in a river about 50 miles (80.47 km) away. These artifacts were in such good condition that they suggested to the researchers that “something happened inside the ice,” and that these oldest items had been exposed and re-frozen again and again over time.

Furthermore, arrows and hunting points that were made thousands of years apart were discovered lying not far from each other, which Montana State Parks’ archaeologist,  Rachel Reckin , interprets as “gravity and water moving artifacts down a great deal.” Co-author  Atle Nesje , a glaciologist at the University of Bergen , told National Geographic that thousands of years ago warm summers may have exposed the oldest artifacts, which were subsequently carried to the edge of the ice patch by streams of meltwater, before refreezing.

A researcher examines an ancient wooden arrow shaft that emerged from the Langfonne ice patch in Norway. (Glacier Archaeology Program, Innlandet County Council)

A researcher examines an ancient wooden arrow shaft that emerged from the Langfonne ice patch in Norway. (Glacier Archaeology Program, Innlandet County Council )

Blowing in the Winds of Time

It is thought that the oldest lightweight wooden arrow shafts had blown over the surface of the ice patch in fierce winds, and that they lodged in rocks and became covered by snow. The differences in the construction of arrows from different eras is providing useful clues as to how these ancient people used the ice patch over time. The profusion of reindeer bones compared to the fewer number of arrows suggests people weren 't actively hunting on this patch of ice; instead, they were harvesting the corpses of reindeer that were probably killed and buried by wolverines, so they could eat them later.

Pilø says radiocarbon dating determined that during the Viking Age , between 600 and 1300 AD,  different activities were being performed on the Langfonne patch. "There's a lot of arrow finds, but hardly any reindeer material.” The researcher thinks Vikings were hard at work “removing slain reindeer from the ice, harvesting their fur and antlers to sell as trade goods.”

The upper part from Langfonne, photographed from a helicopter in September 2014. The light grey areas have been exposed by retreating ice and snow in the last two decades. (Glacier Archaeology Program, Innlandet County Council)

The upper part from Langfonne, photographed from a helicopter in September 2014. The light grey areas have been exposed by retreating ice and snow in the last two decades. ( Glacier Archaeology Program, Innlandet County Council )

On one hand, it is an archaeologist’s dream when a patch of ice melts revealing ancient artifacts with no need for test trenches, but it is also a curse. While Norway’s prehistoric secrets are rapidly being revealed as the Langfonne ice patch melts, this puts researchers under increasing pressure to recover as many artifacts and to preserve as much information as possible, before the icy tomb vanishes forever and the timeworn hunting tools are once again blown away in the wind.

Top Image: Detail of a n ancient arrow from the peak period of hunting at Langfonne in Norway. Source: Secrets of the Ice

By Ashley Cowie

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