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

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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Far below the ice of a distant moon: Life?

An artist's impression of the European Space Agency's JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)
An artist’s impression of the European Space Agency’s JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)

Mars rovers have been tested in Death Valley and Peru. Apollo astronauts used Meteor Crater in Arizona to simulate walking on the moon. Now glaciers have their part to play as stand-ins for outer space.

The Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is the destination, Alaska’s Matanuska glacier is the training ground. Scientists think that an ocean of liquid water exists below Europa’s ice-covered surface. To practice getting to it, NASA researchers are testing a robotic probe called VALKYRIE that can use a laser-powered drill to bore down into the Alaskan glacier.

A separate group of researchers (this time from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is working on a rover that can swim around underneath the ice. Like the VALKYRIE team, the ice rover is also doing its testing in Alaska.

What’s at stake for projects like these might turn out to be the greatest scientific discovery yet: life outside of earth.

Recently, President Obama requested $15 million to begin developing a mission to Europa for NASA’s 2015 budget. Last month, NASA issued proposals for science equipment on the eventual Europa probe, though it remains to be seen if either the laser drill or the ice rover will make the cut. The mission is tentatively scheduled for the mid-2020s. The European Space Agency is also planning a flyby mission, which will be expected to launch in 2022.

When the two NASA Viking probes landed on Mars in the 1970s, one of the primary mission goals was to search for life outside of Earth. When none was found, attention slowly shifted to Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, as the likeliest source of extraterrestrial life in the solar system.
Brown ridges crisscross Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Scientists believe a ocean lies beneath the surface that might harbor life. (NASA/PLAN-PIA01641)

Europa’s relatively smooth, icy surface is marked by thousands of reddish-brown scratches, as if someone dragged a rusty fork across a cue ball. Many scientists believe a giant ocean exists just below the ice, made warmer by the tidal pull from Jupiter, which creates friction that generates ice-melting heat. In these relatively temperate waters, alien creatures might be swimming. Life on Europa has been the speculation of science fiction for decades, from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1987 novel 2061: Odyssey Three to the more recent movie Europa Report.

Both the NASA and the ESA missions will try to prove whether or not there is an ocean beneath the surface. Europa does emit water vapor plumes frequently in the same manner that geysers on Earth do. If the ocean turns out to exist, it would contain twice as much water as Earth’s oceans, according to the NASA website.

Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska's Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa's thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)
Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska’s Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa’s thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)

Most scientists and researchers agree that while Mars may have once supported life, Europa may support life right now. Whatever the eventual missions find near Jupiter, there will be a need to run tests on our planet’s own glaciers, conveniently located only a few thousand miles from NASA’s headquarters.