Ancient artifacts and human remains surface as glaciers melt
In summer 2014 in just one Norwegian county a team of archaeologists found 400 Stone Age artifacts uncovered by glacial melt.
“Mittens, shoes, weapons, walking sticks – lost in the high mountains of Norway thousands of years ago - are now emerging from melting ice,” says ScienceNordic in a January 2015 article.
Lars Pilø, the archaeologist who leads the Norwegian team, said Earth should be approaching a new ice age, but instead people are recovering artifacts from melting glaciers like never before.
1,700-year-old tunic recovered from ice. (Photo: Mårten Teigen/Museum of Cultural History)
This phenomenon is not limited to Norway. All over the world as glaciers melt and recede, archaeologists and hikers are finding artifacts and remains of humans and animals from hundreds or thousands of years ago.
The topic is so prevalent that Equinox Publishing has established the online Journal of Glacial Archaeology, which will report on archaeological discoveries from glacial, permafrost, polar and high‐altitude frozen contexts around the world. “The main themes will include archaeological analyses of recovered frozen artifacts, interpretations of frozen finds in relation to past and present climates, problems and solutions related to managing, monitoring and rescuing frozen deposits as well as social, political and ethical issues related to these discoveries … from Europe, North and South America, Asia and Antarctica,” the journal says.
In 2013 Archaeology.com did a seven-page article about the phenomenon that says the pressure to find, document, and conserve the exposed artifacts is tremendous. “The next 50 years will be decisive,’ says Albert Hafner, an archaeologist at the University of Bern who has excavated melting sites in the Alps. ‘If you don’t do it now they will be lost.”
Pilø, quoted in that article too, called the glaciers time machines.
Nigardsbrevatnet Glacier, in the Sognefjord, Norway. (Wikimedia Commons)
In 2005, the online magazine Geotimes reported on the phenomenon. “An ancient frozen body has to be one of the most valuable things on Earth,” said Johan Reinhard, an archaeologist working then with National Geographic. He found the Inca Ice Maiden in the Andes in 1995.
Geotimes reported on another find, from August 1999, when three sheep hunters in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in northern British Columbia came across a well-preserved 500- to 600-year human body minus the head poking out of the ice at the foot of a glacier. With the body were hunting tools, a hat, a fur robe and a pouch of dried salmon preserved.
In Europe, Ötzi the iceman, a famous ice mummy, 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 southern Norway Pilø and his group conduct fieldwork on an ancient route over the mountains where there is now a melting glacier. Thousands of years ago people crossed the mountains there to travel from one place to another or to go back and forth to their high summer farms. They left many artifacts that are now showing up.
We often find things associated with hunting. There are also ordinary objects such as mittens and shoes and the skeletons of horses that died on the trek across the mountains. This makes it a real thrill, says Pilø.
Among the things his crew found in 2014 were hiking staffs and a horse skull from the Viking Age. They also found an arrow shaft from the Stone Age.
ScienceNordic says artifacts reveal copious information about people who lived as far back as the Stone Age. People who lived that long ago left no written documents about their lives and times because they pre-date writing systems, or if they had writing no texts survive.
The remains and artifacts are emerging from the ice quickly, so scientists have to work fast to retrieve them and study them. Organic matter deteriorates rapidly when exposed to the air. Wood artifacts may last a few years once they melt out of the ice, but researchers have a week or less to recover leather before it dries out, becomes light and brittle, and blows away.
Featured image: Artifacts discovered in melting glaciers, including the mummified remains of Otzi the Iceman.
By Mark Miller