Glacier Archaeology Comes of Age

The Iceman's reconstruction (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter
The Iceman’s reconstruction (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter

Have you heard of Ötzi? One of the world’s best-preserved mummies, he immediately became an archaeological sensation when he came to light in 1991, and new details of his story have been surfacing in scientific journals, magazines, television programs and on the radio ever since—Radiolab dedicated an entire episode to Ötzi just last year.

A 45-year-old Neolithic man, fully clothed and carrying a backpack, an axe, a dagger, medicinal plants, and many other personal belongings, he was discovered by a pair of hikers in the Ötzal Alps of Italy lying face down in glacial ice and meltwater. At first the hikers thought he was the victim of a recent mountaineering accident. But when scientists took a look, they discovered the body was over 5,000 years old.

Ötzi could be considered the poster child for what has since become its own branch of study: glacier archaeology.

Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)
Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

Though it has been over two decades since Ötzi was discovered, and many more major finds have surfaced in melting ice and snow in the time since then, glacier archaeology is a field that is only now coming into its own. While one-offs like Ötzi and other mummies have made thrilling finds, the potential for recovery of new artifacts is growing as glacial melt accelerates around the globe. Just this November, the first journal dedicated exclusively to glacier archaeology launched: it’s called, suitably, The Journal of Glacier Archaeology.

“There is immediacy to this research,” write the editors in an introduction to the journal’s first annual issue. “Climate models suggest that in the next decades many sites will be lost to melting and decay. Consequently, it is imperative to extend the geographic scope of this research now.” Once the artifacts thaw, they begin to decompose, and shrivel up, which makes them less valuable to researchers, which has lent the hunt for finds a sense of urgency. Vast regions of Asia, Europe, and North and South American have so far been virtually untouched by the discipline. Identifying good new sites in remote glaciated regions of the world is increasingly being done with the aid of advanced technology: not just aerial photography and helicopter surveys, but satellite imagery and geographic systems modeling.

Overview of snow patches sites with archaeological finds in central Norway. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Overview of snow patches sites with archaeological finds in central Norway. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

The first issue of the journal offers, among other things, an overview of findings about the impeccably preserved 500-year-old “Inca Ice Maiden” and two other mummified Inca children, discovered together in 1999 on Mount Lullaillaco in northwestern Argentina and understood to be human sacrifices; a pollen analysis of caribou dung found on ice patches in the Yukon; a discussion of bronze age arrows found in Norwegian alpine snow patches (see below); and an analysis of GIS (Geographic Information Systems mapping) methods used by glacial archaeologists.

Arrows with shell points recovered from the Løpesfonna snow patch. (a) T25172; (b) T25684. Photo by Åge Hojem:NTNU-Museum of Natural History and Archaeol- ogy. Layout Martin Callanan. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Arrows with shell points recovered from the Løpesfonna snow patch. (a) T25172; (b) T25684. Photo by Åge Hojem: NTNU-Museum of Natural History and Archaeology. Layout Martin Callanan. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

A series of annual meetings called “Frozen Pasts,” first launched in Switzerland in 2008, provided the impetus for the new journal, according to Martin Callanan, a glacial archaeologist at Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and managing editor of the journal. “It’s a bottom-up thing—people working with the same things, the same complex phenomena, the same findings, all finding each other and saying something is going on here, and it’s global, we need to have regular meetings and a proper publication for ourselves,” he says. “It’s its own special little field…we’ve only started looking.”

The Cryospheric Gallery

The funny thing about the term glacial archaeology is that most artifacts recovered intact from melting snow and ice actually come from what are called snow and ice “patches,” according to Callanan. That’s because snow and ice patches don’t grow and recede the way glaciers do, making them less likely to crush artifacts in their midst to dust over time. There is an ongoing debate over whether these formations are considered “glacial” or not, he says, and in terms of their cryospheric properties, they’re not well understood.

“I think initially people thought you could just transfer glacial theory or dynamics over and that would explain them, but that’s not the case,” says Callanan. “They’re at an elevation far below the [glacier] equilibrium line, seem to be of an age that would indicate they are stable, but at the same time, some of them are surrounded by evidence that there’s been movement in the past, so it’s turned out to be one of the really interesting aspects of this. It’s a new member of the cryospheric gallery.” These ice or snow patches, he says, may have been strictly glacial in formation during the Little Ice Age.

The snow patch at  Løftingsfonnkollen on (a) 14 September 2008. (b) 17 September 2008. (c) 21 August 2010. The find location of the Bronze Age shaft (T24138) is marked. Photo by Geovekst, Statens kartverk, Norkart AS (b) and Martin Callanan (a, c). Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
The snow patch at Løftingsfonnkollen on (a) 14 September 2008. (b) 17 September 2008. (c) 21 August 2010. The find location of the Bronze Age shaft (T24138) is marked. Photo by Geovekst, Statens kartverk, Norkart AS (b) and Martin Callanan (a, c). Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

There is also an ongoing battle over who is allowed into the club–who can and should call themselves glacial archaeologists. Many more traditional archaeological finds have been dug up out of permafrost—a subterranean layer of earth that is frozen year-round and is typically found at some alpine altitudes and at high latitudes, such as the Arctic and Antarctic regions. “There are wonderful complex finds in the permafrost, but they have a different physical background and regime than ice patches, and there’s all sorts of different sites: grave sites, graveyards, villages, houses. Then it would be a more standard archeological excavation, but the warming thing is what binds them together,” says Callanan.

“So I’m part of the school that says permafrost is in, but we’re still arguing about that.”

For a related story in glacierhub about bodies resurfacing as ice melts, check out this link.

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1 Comment

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The Sanity Inspectorreply
December 21, 2014 at 03:12 PM

Seems like there is a lot of recent history that could be learned with glacial archaeology. The Austrian-Italian front from the First World War, for instance.

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