In the mountains of Norway, a team of archaeologists are working to rescue the artefacts revealed by melting glaciers and ice patches. The Glacier Archaeology Program, a collaboration between Innlandet County Council and the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, was formed in 2011. Over the last decade, 64 glaciers and ice patches in the Innlandet region have produced over 3,500 archaeological finds, from hunting tools and textiles to zoological material, some dating as far back as 6,000 years ago.
Fieldwork usually takes place in a narrow window between mid August and mid September. This is the best time to search for objects brought to the surface of the ice; any earlier in the year, the old ice will still be covered by snow left over from the previous winter; any later, there is a chance that early winter snow will stop investigations before they even get started.
Archaeological investigation in these conditions presents some unique challenges: from the physical difficulties of reaching the ice patches – often involving tough uphill hikes over rough terrain, so archaeologists have to be in top physical condition – to the logistics of transporting all of the team’s food and supplies – by packhorse or helicopter if they are lucky, by hand if they are not! Despite all this, Lars Holger Pilø, one of the programme’s managers, believes that being a glacier archaeologist is one of the best jobs in the world, offering wonderful scenery, a ‘good old expedition feeling’ that is difficult to find in regular archaeology, and, of course, the spectacular finds.
The programme has discovered a wealth of fascinating artefacts that had been hidden beneath the ice for centuries. One of the most incredible finds was made in October 2021: a 1,300-year-old ski, found at the Digervarden ice patch. The wooden ski is in great condition, with three surviving twisted birch bindings and a leather strap, but what is even more amazing is that it is the second of a pair. The first ski came to the surface in 2014 and archaeologists have been monitoring the ice patch ever since, hoping that the other ski would emerge. Finally, seven years later, it happened. The second ski appeared just 5m away from the spot where the first was found, but had been buried 4-5m further into the ice and was therefore even better preserved. Other incredible finds made by the programme include the oldest piece of clothing found in Norway, an Iron Age tunic dating to AD 300, and an assemblage of arrows dating from the Neolithic to the medieval period.
And it is not just objects that have been found. In 2011, the team identified the forgotten Lendbreen mountain pass, used by Viking and medieval travellers between AD 300 and 1500. Then, in 2021, archaeologists followed the Lendbreen trail west from this pass and discovered the remains of a lost Viking settlement on the hillside above the Neto summer farms. Surveys here revealed the ruins of 21 possible houses, and excavations at several of these structures confirmed that they dated to AD 750-1150: the period with the most intensive traffic through the Lendbreen pass. It is thought that these houses may have provided shelter for travellers coming along the pass, but they could also have been used by people farming or hunting reindeer in this area.
As the old ice in Innlandet continues to melt, more archaeology will be brought to the surface, and therefore put at risk, but the Glacier Archaeology Program is committed to the vital task of identifying and rescuing these objects and, in the process, offering fascinating glimpses into the lives of people who travelled through these areas in the past.
Find out more about the programme on their blog: https://secretsoftheice.com.
IMAGES: Espen Finstad, Andreas Christoffer Nilsson, secretsoftheice.com.