One day more than 3000 years ago, someone lost his shoes at what we now call Langfonne in the Jotunheimen mountains. The shoe was 28 cm long, which is roughly the same as a modern size 36 or 37. The owner may have thought the shoe was lost for good, but on September 17, 2007 it was found again — almost intact.
Around 2000 BC, a red-winged thrush died at Skirådalskollen in the Dovrefjell mountains. His small body was quickly buried under a layer of ice. After reappearing 4,000 years later, his internal organs are still intact.
In recent years, hundreds of such discoveries have been made in the permafrost, revealing traces of hunting, trapping, traffic, animal and plant life — small, frozen moments in the past.
Amazing discoveries every year
Norway has consistently moderately acidic soil, which means that organic matter from the past is not well preserved in the soil. Glaciers often move — and destroy — what they hide beneath the surface. Patch ice, on the other hand, is relatively stable and therefore creates exceptional conditions for preserving organic matter.
“Objects and remains of animals and human activities have been discovered that we didn’t even know existed. They include everything from horse nails and clothing to arrows with tips made of shells, logs, and feathers. Not a year goes by without discoveries. surprising ones that shift the boundaries of our understanding,” said Birgitte Skar, an archaeologist and professor at the NTNU University Museum (Norwegian University of Science and Technology). He is one of the researchers behind a new report (in Norwegian with an English summary) that summarizes the state of knowledge in Norwegian glacial archeology.
The report sheds light on the extraordinary findings but also paints a bleak picture.
Only a few ice sheets containing potential discoveries have been systematically investigated over time, and they are almost never studied at all in northern Norway.
Short-term financing resulted in a lack of continuity in monitoring and securing artifacts from the ice sheet. Some research has been done on the findings, but they barely scratch the surface. Meanwhile, all this knowledge was melting away at a rapid rate.
A recent survey from the Norwegian Directorate of Resources and Energy (NVE) shows that 364 square kilometers of snow cover and Norwegian glaciers have melted since 2006.
Late monitoring program
“A survey based on satellite imagery taken in 2020 showed that more than 40 percent of the 10 selected ice sheets with known findings had melted. These figures indicate a significant threat to preserving the discovery of ice, not to mention ice as a climate. archives,” said Skar.
“The time is ripe to set up a national monitoring program using remote sensing and systematically securing archaeological finds and biological remains from the ice sheet. We should also use this program to collect glaciological data from different parts of the country, as the ice sheet can provide detailed information. data on how the climate has evolved over the last 7,500 years,” he said.
The oldest find to emerge from the ice in Norway is a 6100 year old arrowhead. Like the shoe, it was also found at Langfonne in the Jotunheimen mountains.
Findings from here and elsewhere suggest that this area continued to be used as a hunting ground for as long as ice lasts. This means that they offer an unrivaled source of archaeological information.
“We’re starting to assess whether the ice in some places might have survived the warm period after the last ice age, meaning that the underlying ice sheets could be remnants of ice sheets from that period. The possibilities it offers are unprecedented. opportunities to trace the history and climatic activity of these hunting grounds further back in time,” said Skar.
“We must remember that the oldest population groups in Norway are descended from wildebeest hunters who hunted in Northern Europe and Southern Scandinavia near the edge of the ice sheet, in the latter part of the ice age. In other words, these are people who definitely know how to hunt large hoofed animals and will understand the animal’s behavioral patterns,” Skar added.
Reindeer seek ice caps during hot, wagon-filled summer weather, and the Sami population has also used the area for a variety of purposes, including marking calves, milking, and separating animals. However, inland ice use in Sami is almost never surveyed.
“The use of Sami will probably expand the range of uses and significance of the known snow cover. Obtaining information from carriers of this tradition is urgent,” said Skar.
Mummies of birds and animals
Human activity over thousands of years is not the only story that has been revealed from the discovery of the ice sheet. Animal and plant remains also provide new insights into ice as an ecosystem, such as deer bones from 4,200 years ago that still contain intact bone marrow, as well as some mummified mammals and birds.
According to Jørgen Rosvold, the finds are often very well preserved and can provide genetic information about some species far in the past. They can show how species have responded to climate change and human disturbances in the past.
Rosvold was also involved in the report. He is a biologist and assistant research director at the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research (NINA). He explains that ice is one of the least studied and understood ecosystems in the world, so we know very little about ice as a habitat.
“Our findings suggest that mountain ice has provided important habitat for many mountain species for thousands of years now. Fauna finds also provide background information for archaeological finds, for example by indicating which species people might have hunted. in the snow,” said Rosvold.
“We used to think of ice as desolate and lifeless and therefore of little importance. That’s changing now, but it’s urgent. Large amounts of unique material are melting and disappearing forever. Findings can provide important information about human and natural history,” he said.