1,400-Year Old Sledge Thawed Out of Norwegian Glacier


Vossaskavlen snowdrift glacier plateau (source: Øystein Skår/J Glac Arch)
Vossaskavlen snowdrift glacier plateau (source: Øystein Skår/JGA)

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Glacial Archaeology (JGA), a team of Norwegian scientists from the Hordaland County Council and University Museum of Bergen announced their discovery of a prehistoric sledge freed from the ice.  The discovery, announced in the 2015 article, followed significant melting of the Vossaskavlen Glacier in western Norway.

A team of Norwegian surveyors discovered the artifact, after they spotted what appeared to be poles marking a route over the glacier, approximately 50 meters from the ice edge at an altitude of 1500 meters.  Upon further examination, the team of archaeologists found 21 wooden fragments with signs of craftsmanship.

Radiocarbon dating puts the age of the pine wood sledge fragments between 545-655 AD, or to the beginning of the Late Iron Age. This makes it the oldest sledge ever found in Norway.

Some of the pieces that are interpreted as the vertical poles that go between the runners and the deck of a sledge. (source: Svein Skare/J Glac Arch)
Some of the pieces that are interpreted as the vertical poles that go between the
runners and the deck of a sledge. (source: Svein Skare/JGA)

According to the article, the archaeologists determined the wood originated from a sledge by way of several clues, such as rounded notches on several pieces. These notches indicated that the pieces were likely used as supports between the runners and the deck that stored cargo.

Previous archaeological finds in the northern part of the Vossaskavlen, including skis dating back to the medieval period, a spearhead from the Early Iron Age, and arrowheads from the Late Iron Age, support the notion that the area was frequently used as an east-west crossing route, as well as for hunting.

The archaeologists hypothesized the region could have once been used to transport trade goods over a two kilometer stretch of the glacial plateau in the warmer months, or employed by hunters to carry large prey, such as reindeer, back to their villages during the cold months.

The archaeologists from Hordaland County Council and University Museum of Bergen were not able to be reached GlacierHub regarding queries on the specifics of the expedition and further comments on the historical significance of the find by time of publication.

Approximately eight kilometers east of the archaeological site lies a mountain village named Hallingskeid, which is believed to have been a meeting point for trade and festivities between the people of east and west Norway. Historians speculate the trade route was only in use when the weather was warm, as the inclement winter climate hampered trade and other social and professional activities.  

This drawing illustrates the interpreted function of some of the recovered wood pieces. The pieces have been marked red on the drawing. (source: Monika Serafinska/J Glac Arch)
This drawing illustrates the interpreted function of some of the recovered wood pieces. The pieces have been marked red on the drawing. (source: Monika Serafinska/JGA)

However, the artifacts were found at the edge of a flat two kilometer section of the glacier, and would have made transporting goods across that distance significantly easier.  The archaeologists hypothesize the sledge could have been left each season to help in the transportation of trade goods, then forgotten or abandoned, and finally buried under the ice for the next 1,400 years.

The article states two types of sledges were historically used.  One was lighter, equipped with ski runners, and pulled by humans.  The other was stronger, heavier, outfitted with sleigh runners, and pulled by horses.  The remnants discovered in 2014 appear to have originated from the lighter variety.

Until a major melting event in the summer of 2006, most of the plateau was covered in glacial ice and snow.  Additional melting between 2006 and the time of discovery released the remains of the sledge from the ice that preserved it for nearly one and a half millennia.

According to the Archaeological Institute of America, between 2006 and 2013 more than 1600 artifacts have been found in Oppland County, Norway, which is northeast of Vossaskavlen, alone.

This explosion of artifacts brought on by rapid melting of glaciers and ice patches brought on by rising global temperatures presents an opportunity for archaeologists to locate well preserved objects that likely would not have survived through the ages if not for the ice.  However, once freed from their cryogenic state, the objects can quickly deteriorate.  Wood, like the sledge remnants, is very fragile.  After surviving thousands of years in the ice, wood can degenerate in a matter of years.

With the speed that glacial ice is melting, it is a race against time for archaeologists to collect the historical treasures before they are lost forever.

6 Responses to “1,400-Year Old Sledge Thawed Out of Norwegian Glacier”

  1. Avatar
    Luke The Drifter

    One quibble with an otherwise fine article: 545-655 AD is well within historic times rather than prehistoric.
    Thank you for an informative read. Keep up the good work.

    • GlacierHub

      Though there is not complete agreement among historians about the division of the history of the Nordic countries into periods, there is at least close to consensus that the Viking Period began at the end of the 700s AD. Before that was the Iron Age, a period of tribal societies which followed their traditional religions. Could you call these Iron Age societies part of historical times? There are a few inscriptions with runes from Norway dating as far back as the 300s AD, but they are not complete enough to make the societies genuinely historic. So you could say that prehistory in Norway ran up to the Viking era, or perhaps even later, up to the arrival of Christianity and written documents around 1000.

        • GlacierHub

          The Norse literature and history was nearly all written after the period when the sledge was made and used. During the Iron Age, the people of Norway were not literate and were not part of a society with literate rulers.

  2. Avatar
    Luke The Drifter

    In that case, I’m understanding the word differently. I absolutely *would* call the specified Iron Age societies part of historical times. To my mind, it’s quite enough that *somebody else* was able to write about them, even if they didn’t actually do so.
    The explanation here would seem to make even a modern illiterate society prehistoric, which would confuse me if I heard such usage.
    But hey, I get confused sometimes. I’m also wrong a LOT. It hasn’t been fatal so far.
    Thank you for your patience and the clarification.

    • GlacierHub

      Fascinating questions. I would say that contemporary pre-literate societies are part of historical times because of the legacy of colonialism and of post-colonial independent countries. Even the most remote parts of tropical forests now appear in government reports and satellite images. That’s quite different from the Iron Age societies of Scandinavia, which appeared only in scattered accounts, somewhat mythical in nature, from the literate centers in Europe.

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