Hunting for History through the Eyes of the Ice

Climate change is melting ice sheets and glaciers, causing panic among the climate scientist community. Yet, to historians and anthropologists, these melting events provide an opportunity to glimpse into the past. Glacier archaeology is mainly concentrated in Scandinavia, the Alps and North America. Those in this field sleuth for artifacts precipitating out from glacial ice. A prominent example is Lars Pilø, co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program at Oppland County Council in Norway. His team recently published a paper in the Royal Society Open Science Journal on the chronology of reindeer hunting in Jotunheimen, Norway.

In their extensive fieldwork in the mountains from 2006 to 2015, they uncovered over 2,000 artifacts mainly associated with reindeer hunting, ranging from wood, textile, hide, arrows and other organic materials such as reindeer antlers, bones and horse dung that are rarely well-preserved. By radiocarbon dating 153 of these finds, trends in the intensity of reindeer hunting and civilization in high-alpine environments from circa 4,000 BCE to the present were revealed. The results suggest a peak in human activities during the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age and the Viking Age, as attributed to warmer periods in time, which is within expectations. After all, a harsher climate is likely to deter hunting as both animals and humans alike avoid higher elevation areas.

A broken arrow discovered in the field site that is about 2700 years old (Source: Lars Pilø/Instagram)
A broken arrow discovered in the field site that is about 2700 years old (Source: Lars Pilø/Instagram).

More striking is the indication of trade with Denmark and even England that began before the dates suggested in historical documentation records. The intensity of reindeer hunting points at regional trading of fur and antlers (used to make combs) that began during the Viking (800-1050 CE) and Middle (1050-1537 CE) Ages. This exceeds formal records of reindeer exports which first appeared in 1400 CE. Also, high hunting activities may not necessarily reflect a rising population and increasing economic activity. Periods of low agricultural yields also intensified high altitude hunting as in the Little Ice Age (AD 546-660).

“The unpredictable weather is perhaps the greatest challenge for the fieldwork,” Pilø told GlacierHub. “The weather in the high mountains changes quickly— one moment we are out surveying, next thing we sit in our tents and wait for a snow blizzard to pass. There is a lot of logistics and scouting for sites involved as well.”

There is also the unpredictability of the ice melt. “Some years we have extreme melting and are just racing around in the high mountains, trying to save as many artifacts as possible. Other years, there is little or no melting, and we cannot get survey work done,” Pilø explained. “This is why we are happy to have a permanent program and not just a short-term project. Many of our colleagues in North America and the Alps struggle with short-term funding for their ice surveys. If you are lucky you get money for a year or two, but if you have lots of snow during this time, you cannot get work done, and funding dries up.”

One of Pilø’s team members finding an remarkably well-preserved arrow near a melting ice patch at 1900m in Jotunheimen
One of Pilø’s team members finding an remarkably well-preserved arrow near a melting ice patch at 1900m in Jotunheimen (Source: Secrets of the Ice/ Instagram).

In the same vein, Ralph Lugon, a glacier archaeologist working in the Alps, also described the difficulty of accessing glaciate sites. “Potential prospection areas are vast and there are many types of frozen environment to assess. And the time window for archaeological prospection in the field is constrained to a maximum of two or three weeks at the end of the melting season (summer), in optimal meteorological conditions,” he told GlacierHub in an interview.

Glacier archaeologists must scramble to collect and conserve these findings as most objects consist of perishable materials that degrade and decompose rapidly once exposed to the open air. In fact, this sub-discipline in archaeology is relatively new and only emerged in the last 20 years due to increased ice melting, making glacier archaeology possible.

When asked whether climate change will actually help or hinder glacier archaeology, Pilø and Lugon both readily agreed that with glaciers, ice patches, and snow levels at their lowest point in recent history, they finally have access to unexplored landscapes, throwing new light on how humans interacted with high-altitude and -latitude environments in the past.

However, to Pilø, this phenomenon itself is a conundrum. “The artifacts have been preserved by the ice for such a long time, and the melting is exposing them to the elements, which will destroy them in the end. So we need to get up to the ice and collect the artifacts to avoid the loss of important historical remains,” he said. In the realm of glacier sleuthing, it is a race against time to capture what is frozen in time.

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