Photo Friday: Norwegian Glacial Ice Preserves Ancient Viking Artifacts

Climate change is rapidly thawing the world’s ice reserves––the glaciers in the Jotunheimen Mountains of southern Norway are no exception. While this is certainly catastrophic to the region’s ecosystem, it also provides an opportunity for Norwegian archaeologists to delve into their history. Cold glacial ice preserves ancient artifacts in near perfect condition, allowing researchers to uncover secrets of bygone civilizations.

On February 28, the Glacier Archaeology Program Oppland posted a tweet from its Secrets of the Ice project displaying a 1,500-year-old iron arrowhead that was found near the edge of a glacier in Jotunheimen, at an altitude of 2,050 meters. The artifact dates back to the Germanic Iron Age when the Celtic and Germanic kingdoms were rising in Western Europe. It was discovered alongside its arrow shaft and one of the feathers from the fletching.

“Three national parks converge in this region of central Norway, but Jotunheimen is arguably the most spectacular, with 250 peaks over 1,900 meters high, including the two tallest in northern Europe—Galdhøpiggen and Glittertind. Among the stone titans are alpine lakes and shimmering turquoise glaciers, chequering an ancient landscape of unspeakable beauty,” anthropologist Shoshi Parks wrote on Adventure.com.

Parks continued: “Archaeological work is often undertaken in extreme conditions—desert heat and tropical humidity are par for the course—but glacier archaeology is a different kind of challenge. It’s so cold and snowy on the mountains of Jotunheimen that the Glacier Archaeology Program only has about a month each year, from mid-August to mid-September, to study the receding ice.”

The following is a video that was taken just after the arrowhead was discovered. It shows the proximity of the melting ice as well as the arrow shaft to which it was attached.

Many fascinating artifacts have been discovered from the Viking Age as well, including items such as mittens, skis and spears. In August 2019, Secrets of the Ice discovered a horse snowshoe at 2,000 meters in Oppland County, Norway, dating back to the Viking Age or the Medieval Period. Preserved perfectly intact, the outer ring was made from juniper and the rope was made from twisted birch roots.

Though it was just founded in 2011, The Glacier Archeology Program in Oppland, Norway has already discovered over 2,000 artifacts, the oldest being around 6,000 years old, which dates back to the Stone Age. Artifacts include man-made items like hunting tools, textiles, leather and clothing, as well as zoological materials like antlers, bones, and dung. Altogether, these artifacts form a picture of the mountains, “not as an extreme and isolated environment, but as a place of continuous human activity going back thousands of years,” Parks wrote.

Archeologists have a wonderfully alluring road ahead as they rescue the stories of the past from the climate transformations of the future.

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How Invertebrates Colonize Deglaciated Sites

Mitopus morio (Source: Javier Díaz Barrera/Flickr).
Mitopus morio (Source: Javier Díaz Barrera/Flickr).

Scientists have long wondered how species colonize sites after deglaciation. A recent study by Amber Vater and John Matthews in the journal The Holocene of invertebrates–animals without backbones—on a number of sites in Norway advances the understanding of this colonization. It pays particular attention to succession, the processes of change in the species composition of ecological communities over time. The invertebrate groups which were studied include insects, spiders and mites, as well as harvestmen, also known as daddy longlegs.

To study the process of succession, Amber and Matthews collected invertebrate samples from pitfall traps in 171 locations across eight glacier forelands, which deglaciated over the last few centuries, in the Jotunheimen (high altitude) and Jostedalsbreen (low altitude) subregions in southern Norway. Jotunheimen is the highest mountain in Europe north of the Alps and west of the Urals, while Jostedalsbreen is the largest ice-cap in Europe outside Iceland. These forelands represent different ecological regions and areas that have been deglaciated for periods of different length. A variety of geological and biological evidence allowed the researchers to establish the precise timing of glacier retreat across their sites. The researchers identified the organisms by taxa—the species, genus or family to which they belong—since species identification was difficult in some cases.

The location of the eight glacier forelands in southern Norway (Source: Vater and Matthews/Sage Journals).
The location of the eight glacier forelands in southern Norway (Source: Vater and Matthews/Sage Journals).

Several major findings were derived from this study. Firstly, invertebrates arrive fairly quickly after the retreat of glaciers, within a decade or two. In particular, initial colonization is faster and dispersal is more effective at high altitudes, where glacier forelands are small, reducing the distance from established communities to new sites; in addition, the strong winds in such areas can carry organisms further. The flying insects, such as flies, aphids, bees, wasps, stoneflies, caddisflies and flying beetles, arrived earlier than the ground-active non-flying species, such as spiders, harvestmen, mites, ants, and non-flying beetles. Moreover, the communities grow more complex over time. In the first stage, lasting about 20 years, 11-31 taxa were found; this number increased to 21-55 in the fourth and final stage, over two centuries later. The authors found as well that invertebrate communities tend to be more diverse at low altitudes, where environmental conditions are more favorable.

Jotunheimen from southern Norway (Source: Thomas Mues/Flickr).
Jotunheimen from southern Norway (Source: Thomas Mues/Flickr).

Vater and Matthews summarize their findings by stating “invertebrate succession on the glacier forelands is viewed as driven primarily by individualistic behavior of the highly mobile species with short life-cycles responding to regional and local abiotic environmental gradients”.

Amara quenseli (Source: Chris Moody/Flickr).
Amara quenseli (Source: Chris Moody/Flickr).

This research calls into question earlier studies of succession. Previous studies, often based on plant species rather than invertebrates, have emphasized that nearly all taxa occur only in some of the stages of succession. By contrast, Vater and Matthews find that most of the taxa that first appear remain all the way till the final stage—65-86%, depending on the site. The authors describe their results as an ‘addition and persistence’ model (because taxa remain, once they arrive) rather than the more established ‘replacement-change’ model, in which different taxa replace each other over time. This ‘addition and persistence’ model seems to be more applicable in severe environments.

This research offers some insights into the regions that will become exposed as glacier retreat continues. It brings the positive finding that lands that appear after glacier retreat will not remain barren for long, since invertebrates are likely to colonize these sites soon. However, the new areas at higher elevations may have only a small number of specialized invertebrate taxa instead of a wide range of them.

For more details on invertebrates living on glaciers, look here.