400-Year-Old Beeswax Candle Box Found in Melting Norwegian Ice
The standard bookish definition for global warming encompasses the melting of polar ice caps and a general rise in temperatures across the globe. At this very moment, sheets of ice are melting in regions which were once abundantly covered with snow. The Lendbreen ice patch located in Oppland County, Norway recently melted further, leading to the discovery of hundreds of old artifacts and revealing a long, probably interrupted, history from the end of the Roman Ice Age until the Medieval period. But the area was abandoned due to the Black Death and was never used again.
One of the artifacts recovered from the Lendbreen ice patch is a wooden box, which seems to have miraculously survived the ravages of time and ice. And with its lid firmly in place, it maintained its contents. Contrary to what one expects in closed boxes – jewelry or scriptures or something more precious, it turned out to be a beeswax candle, preserved in great condition. As it turns out, this beeswax candle has a fascinating story behind it.
The box containing the beeswax candle as it was found on the Lendbreen ice. (Secrets of the Ice)
Glacial Archaeology and the Lendbreen Ice-Patch
The Lendbreen ice-patch was discovered in 2011 and since then it has been home to several finds that are revealing a history of 1,200 years of use. The glacial ice acted as a protector, preserving not just items made from wood, but also leather, bone and wool, amongst other materials. The Scandinavian country has a history that involved the sea-faring Norse conquerors, the Vikings, and many artifacts from that era (late 8th – late 11th century AD) have been uncovered.
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The finds are never-ending – just last year, a study published in the peer-reviewed archaeology journal Antiquityfocused on artifacts from 300-1500 AD, with activity peaking around 1000 AD, at the height of the Viking Age. The archaeologists are from the Glacial Archaeology Program which focuses on the study of preserved organic materials that are yet undisturbed by the perennial movement of sediment and the ensuing erosion and decay.
In fact, the entire study of glacial archaeology can be seen as post-modern and a by-product of rampant industrial capitalism. In the past few decades, this discipline, aided by ever-evolving technology, has created a need for the social sciences community to study and understand what is being recovered from melting ice. The Glacial Archaeology Program specifically devoted itself to understanding the Lendbreen ice-patch and its role as a mountain pass that facilitated communication, long-distance trade, and travel.
The box found at the Lendbreen ice-patch containing a well-preserved beeswax candle. (Secrets of the Ice)
Within Oppland County, the area of study was zeroed in upon after studying 51 ice patches and small glaciers, that exposed a whopping 3,000 artifacts, textiles, and tools, along with 450 associated finds. These included reindeer antlers, horse bones, and samples of horse dung. These ice-sites at Oppland displayed a history of hunting, along with usage as a mountain pass, making it the first of its kind in Northern Europe.
“Global warming is leading to the melting of mountain ice worldwide, and the finds melting out of the ice are a result of this,” Lars Pilø, the leading author of the study and a co-director of Norway’s Glacier Archaeology Program, told Gizmodo. “Trying to save the remains of a melting world is a very exciting job—the finds are just an archaeologist’s dream—but at the same time, it is also a job you cannot do without a deep sense of foreboding.”
The weather in the high mountains can be challenging for archaeological fieldwork. Lendbreen basecamp in August 2013. (secretsoftheice.com)
Dating the Beeswax Candle and Finding its Usage
Other items included Viking spears, a tunic made from wool, mittens, horse snowshoes, knives, dog leashes, walking sticks, and even the remnants of a dog! The recently discovered pine-wood box has been described on the Secrets of the Ice Facebook page as “one of the most awesome finds”.
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The skeleton of an adult male dog with collar and leash, found in the ice of the Lendbreen mountain pass. A selection of small bones collected at the same spot appear to be the stomach contents. They show that the dog ate fish for its last meal. The dog lived in the 16th century AD, at the end of the use of the Lendbreen pass. (Secrets of the Ice)
Using radiocarbon dating performed at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, the researchers determined it to be between 546 and 386 years old, i.e., created between 1475 and 1635 – definitely proving that it outdated the Vikings by almost 400 years.
The find may seem ordinary, but this thorough effort at preservation reveals the attachment the carrier had for it. After all, electricity is a modern phenomenon, before which the circadian rhythm and the arrival of the sun dictated terms entirely. This was particularly true for Medieval Norwegian farmers, who likely used beeswax candles during the night on their farms, and also obviously as a source of illumination through these mountain passes.
By Rudra Bhushan