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Letter from Norway

The Big Melt

The race to find, and save, ancient artifacts emerging from glaciers and ice patches in a warming world

Monday, August 12, 2013

norway-ice-patch-opener

 

The Lendbreen ice patch is located high in the mountains of southern Norway, in a range that runs like a spine through Scandinavia. In the 1800s, the area was dubbed the Jotunheim Mountains, or the home of the jötnar, the rock and frost giants of Norse mythology. Its peaks are the highest in northern Europe and are snowbound year-round.

 

The summer of 2006 was unusually warm in the Jotunheim Mountains, with temperatures high enough to melt not just the previous winter’s snow, but also layers of ice beneath, representing thousands of past winters. One day, a woodworker and hobby archaeologist from the nearby town of Lom, in Oppland County, came across a well-preserved leather shoe while hiking near Lendbreen. He carried it back to town and turned it over to curators at the Norwegian Mountain Museum. When archaeologists examined it, they were stunned. It wasn’t a modern shoe, but one that was last worn in the Bronze Age, some 3,400 years ago.

 

It turned out that the conditions at Lendbreen had long been perfect for preserving such ancient artifacts. Objects left on the surface ages ago were covered with snow that eventually compacted to ice, shielding them from decay and disturbance for thousands of years. But the summer of 2006 was warm enough to melt this protective shell, exposing the shoe. The archaeologists wondered, could there be more ancient artifacts hidden in various ice patches? Perhaps more importantly, were some of these artifacts now at risk from the elements?

 

The fortuitous discovery of the Bronze Age shoe helped the local heritage management office push for an organized rescue program to locate, assess, and search dozens of sites in the mountains of Oppland. It’s an effort that combines archaeology with high-tech mapping, glaciology, climate science, and history. When conditions are right, it’s as simple as picking the past up off the ground. “The ice is a time machine,” says Lars Pilö, an archaeologist who works for the Oppland County council. “When you’re really lucky, the artifacts are exposed for the first time since they were lost.”

 

In Scandinavia 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 archaeologists a chance to study them. 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. “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.”