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Glacier artifacts. The bones and personal belongings of the "Théodule Pass mercenary”, an unidentified man thought to have fallen into a crevasse above Zermatt in the 17th century.

Global Warming Reveals Amazing Glacier Artifacts from Switzerland’s Ancient Past

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In Sion, Switzerland an exhibition is being held which presents glacier artifacts (archaeological finds from glaciers). In recent decades, many discoveries of often perfectly preserved ancient glacier artifacts and materials have been made in mountain valleys and passes in Switzerland. The exhibition is drawing attention to the archaeological significance of glaciers and how they can help us to understand the ancient past.

Glacier Artifacts and the Ancient Past

A glacier is a huge body of ice that is slowly moving under its own weight. Because Switzerland is so mountainous it has many large glaciers, especially in its Alpine regions, and they are often thousands of years old. Because of global warming, the Alpine glaciers are melting and retreating. According to Swiss. Info ‘well preserved archaeological treasures and human remains, are surfacing’, as a result.  It is widely believed that by 2090 there will be no glaciers left in Switzerland because of rising temperatures caused by global warming.

Trient Glacier in 1891 and 2010. (Musée d’histoire du Valais/Oscar Nicollier/Hilaire Dumoulin and Nicolas Crispini)

Trient Glacier in 1891 and 2010. ( Musée d’histoire du Valais/Oscar Nicollier/Hilaire Dumoulin and Nicolas Crispini )

As the glaciers retreat , those who are visiting the Alps are making more chance discoveries. The majority of the finds have not been made by professional archaeologists, but rather by hikers and climbers. The Alpine areas of Switzerland are very popular with Swiss and international visitors. Many of these visitors are coming across remains and items that date from the 20th century to the Neolithic period.

Many of the artifacts that have been uncovered in glaciers can date back several thousand years. Among the most important glacier artifacts that have been uncovered in recent decades has been a moccasin from the Stone Age. According to National Geographic ‘, since the ice acts like a giant freezer and preserves the objects, the finds look like they could have been uncovered yesterday’. New advances in technology mean that anything found in the ice can now be conserved for posterity.

Pierre-Yves Nicod, archaeologist and Valais History Museum curator in Sion, Switzerland, has stated that “anything that has been found that is made of wood is more likely than not to have been left there by some human.” Anyone who believes that they have found something important is required to report it to the local authorities. Many artifacts have been given to the Valais History Museum in recent years.

A wooden statue thought to be from 400 BC-100 BC found at the Collon Pass, between Arolla in Switzerland and Bionaz in Italy. (Musée d’histoire du Valais/Michel Martinez)

A wooden statue thought to be from 400 BC-100 BC found at the Collon Pass, between Arolla in Switzerland and Bionaz in Italy. ( Musée d’histoire du Valais/Michel Martinez )

Exhibition of Glacier Artifacts

The number of finds in recent years persuaded Nicod to stage the “Mémoires de glace: vestiges en péril” at the Valais Museum. This is a small but significant exhibition that consists entirely of finds made in local glaciers. The theme of the exhibition is to show that finds in these natural phenomena are very precious but also very fragile.

Perhaps the most important items on display are from the Neolithic period. There are fragments of a bow, an arrow case, arrowheads,  and leg coverings. It is believed that they once belonged to a Stone Age hunter who somehow lost them approximately three thousand years ago. The glacier artifacts were discovered by a hiker in 2003 in a mountain pass near Sion.

The curator of the exhibition hopes that the displays will raise awareness of the importance of glaciers as sites for archaeological finds and encourage people to hand over anything that they find while hiking or mountaineering. The exhibition also has some of the personal items of modern hikers and climbers who vanished or died in the Alps, such as a prayer book and boots.

Boots that belonged to Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin, who disappeared on August 15, 1942 in bad weather on the Tsanfleuron Glacier, near Les Diablerets. (Musée d’histoire du Valais/Michel Martinez)

Boots that belonged to Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin, who disappeared on August 15, 1942 in bad weather on the Tsanfleuron Glacier, near Les Diablerets. (Musée d’histoire du Valais/Michel Martinez )

The Importance of Glaciers for Archaeology

It is expected that more items will be revealed in the coming years by the retreating Swiss glaciers. However, these items once exposed will quickly decay. Thus, there is a need for hikers and others to quickly alert the local archaeological services in Switzerland. The exhibition at the Valais History Museum is just one of a series of efforts that are aimed at enlisting the help of the public in securing artifacts and remains that are revealed by melting glaciers

It is not just in Switzerland that glaciers have been revealing important archaeological remains. In the north of Norway in 2014, human remains’ and Stone Age implements were uncovered. Ancient arrowheads from the Ice Age have also been uncovered in a Norwegian glacier.

An arrow from 800 AD found on the ground in Norway, partly covered by snow. (Espen Finstad, Secrets of the Ice, Oppland County Council)

An arrow from 800 AD found on the ground in Norway, partly covered by snow. ( Espen Finstad, Secrets of the Ice, Oppland County Council )

Top image: Glacier artifacts. The bones and personal belongings of the "Théodule Pass mercenary”, an unidentified man thought to have fallen into a crevasse above Zermatt in the 17th century. Source: Walliser Kantonsmuseen, Sitten; Michel Martinez

By Ed Whelan

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