Norwegian Glacial Melt Reveals Artifact Trove

A Bronze Age shoe, radiocarbon-dated to about 1200 B.C. (Vegard Vike, Museum of Cultural History/University of Oslo

(CN) – A team of glacial archaeologists has recovered more than 2,000 artifacts exposed by climate change in the mountains of Norway.

Reporting Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the team describes the haul which includes ancient wood, hide, textile and other organic materials that are rarely preserved.

The finds date as far back as 4,000 B.C. and include arrows, skis and the remains of pack horses and clothing items from the Iron and Bronze ages.

Unfortunately, the climate change-driven melting that reveals the artifacts – so well preserved by the glaciers – also destroys them through exposure.

The team conducted a systematic survey at the edges of contracting ice along Norway’s Jotunheimen and the surrounding mountain areas of Oppland, which include the nation’s tallest peak.

Statistical analysis of the incredibly rare finds’ radiocarbon dates revealed patterns that showed the items do not evenly represent different time periods, which could be attributed to variations in human activity, past climate change or a combination of the two.

“One such pattern which really surprised us was the possible increase in activity in the period known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age (c. 536 to 660 A.D.),” said senior author James Barrett, an environmental archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in England.

This era was marked by cooling, which may have caused harvests to fail and population to decline, according to Barrett. However, the team’s finds may have originated throughout this period, possibly signaling that the importance of mountain hunting – primarily of reindeer – grew to supplement failing agricultural harvests in periods of low temperatures.

Any decline in high-elevation activity during the Late Antique Little Ice Age may also have been so short that it cannot be observed from the available evidence, according to Barrett.

Ski from 700 A.D. with a preserved binding – only the second ski with preserved binding globally. (Aud Hole, /Oppland County Council)

“We then see particularly high numbers of finds dating to the 8th to 10th centuries A.D., probably reflecting increased population, mobility (including the use of mountain passes) and trade – just before and during the Viking age when outward expansion was also characteristic of Scandinavia,” Barrett said.

This increase could have resulted in part from the expanding ecological frontier of towns emerging throughout Europe at this time.

“Town dwellers needed mountain products such as antlers for artifact manufacture and probably also furs,” said Barrett. “Other drivers were the changing needs and aspirations of the mountain hunters themselves.”

The team found fewer artifacts from the latter half of the Middle Ages.

“There is a sharp decline in finds dating from the 11th century onwards,” said lead author Lars Pilo, co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program at Oppland County Council in Norway. “At this time, bow-and-arrow hunting for reindeer was replaced with mass-harvesting techniques including funnel-shaped and pitfall trapping systems. This type of intensive hunting probably reduced the number of wild reindeer.”

Climate variations and the plague could also have led to reduced activity at the time and the reason why the team found fewer items from this period, according to co-author Brit Solli, who led the examination of the recovered artifacts.

“Once the plague arrived in the mid-14th century, trade and markets in the north also suffered,” said Solli, a professor of medieval archaeology at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo. “With fewer markets and fewer reindeer, the activity in the high mountains decreased substantially.

“This downturn could also have been influenced by declining climatic conditions during the Little Ice Age.”

A complete tunic, radiocarbon-dated to about 300 A.D. (Mårten Teigen, Museum of Cultural History/University of Oslo)
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