Ice thaw exposes trove from pre-Viking hunters

September 14, 2010

threearchA thaw of ice in the mountains of Norway is helping Lars Piloe and his team of archaeologists uncover a 1,500-year-old trove of equipment used by ancestors of the Vikings to hunt reindeer.

Their work as “ice patch archaeologists” points to one of a few positive side-effects of man-made climate change, widely blamed for shrinking glaciers worldwide.

On other missions to dwindling ice fields they have found arrows, even some with feathers attached. And another expert found a 3,400-year-old leather shoe. (…they speculate that the shoe’s first owner threw it away because it has a hole in the sole).two

I was up by the ice a few days ago with my TV colleague Kurt — luckily about 40 cms of snow that fell shortly before had melted away, or the trip would have been in vain for everyone — on days with snow, “ice patch archaeologists” can’t find anything.

And at almost 2,000 metres, the season is already extremely short — it starts in mid-August and ends as soon as the autumn snows fall, usually around now. Their finds are a stark sign that the ice has not been this small for centuries: feathers or leather turn to dust within days of exposure unless they are properly preserved.

Most of the finds at the ice, known as Juvfonna, are “scare sticks” — perhaps a metre long with another small piece of wood tied to the top to flap in the wind (see picture below left for the carved end of a scare stick where string was tied). Placed in rows on the ice, they would worry the unwitting reindeer just enough to guide them towards hunters lying in wait behind rocks, without causing a stampede. The archaeologists found dozens of the sticks — even I managed to find a couple among the rocks.

notchArchaeologists speculate that teams of hunters came up from the valley below — probably a 10-hour slog — and left gear at altitude between hunts to avoid carrying the extra weight. Maybe one year at the start of the Dark Ages there was an especially bad early snowstorm that covered up rows of scare sticks — until now. 

Juvfonna is part of a Climate Park that says the finds are “one of the visible consequences of climate change”. And apart from rising global temperatures come natural, local shifts.

As the day wore on during our visit, the noise of water dripping and running off the ice became louder and louder,  even though temperatures were not much above freezing with a chill wind. Lars looked often at the very fringe of the retreating ice — where the most fragile finds can be made.

The archaeologists have even worked out guidelines about what to do if they ever find an ancient corpse in the ice (first rule: call the police).

In Norse mythology, the mountains were inhabited by the “Ice Giants” who battled gods such as Thor and Odin — they myths even explain that the top colour of a rainbow is red to burn the feet of giants and prevent them from climbing to Valhalla, the home of  the gods.

Now even the giants’ mountain stronghold is shrinking.

(Photos:  top – archaeologists Elling Utvik Wammer (left), Lars Piloe (centre) and Trond Vihovde (right) lay out markers to show where they have found small wooden artefacts on the ice field. Centre right: Vihovde (left) uses a GPS satellite marker on a find of a pre-Viking hunting stick as Wammer (right) watches. Bottom: the top of a reindeer “scare stick”.)


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