How climate change is revealing, and threatening, thawing relics

CNN  — 

Since the scorching hot summer of 2006, almost 3,000 archaeological artifacts have appeared from the melting ice in Oppland, Northern Norway. Among them, an Iron Age tunic, a 1,500-year-old arrow and a 3,400-year-old shoe.

Here, a a glacier archaeology program called Secrets of the Ice is documenting the finds being made on local ice patches – static or slow-moving ice fields that are ideal locations to find objects that were once lost in the snow.

Instead of having to dig like traditional archaeologists, Oppland’s archaeologists simply survey areas of the ice, looking out for artifacts that have thawed.

Many of Norway’s glaciers have experienced increased melting this century, caused by warmer temperatures. But whilst the changing climate is presenting archaeologists with exciting finds, it is also threatening to destroy ancient relics before archaeologists ever see them.

Secrets of the Ice

“Glaciers melt back at an alarming pace because of higher temperatures, less snow and more rain, and in doing so they expose archaeological finds that have been safely ice-covered for centuries or even millennia,” explained Vibeke Vandrup Martens, an archaeologist at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research.

Once an artifact is exposed to oxygen and sunlight, it will start to degrade, she said.

A Viking Age arrow was found at an ice site in the Jotunheimen Mountains. Nearly 70 arrows have been found on this site. The oldest dates back 6,000 years.

“At our sites we experience a rapid melting … and bits and pieces of human history melt out in reverse time order,” Lars Pilø, co-director of Secrets of the Ice, told CNN.

Among the program’s thousands of finds are a myriad of items that tell us how the region’s inhabitants dressed in tunics, hunted for reindeer and skied down the slopes.

Ice mummy

Pilø says the “ultimate find” would be an ice mummy, like Europe’s oldest known natural mummy, Ötzi the Iceman. The 5,300-year-old body was discovered in 1991 in the Alps on the border between Austria and Italy, and some scientists believe it emerged due to climate change.

Although Pilø thinks the chances of finding an ice mummy are slim, an “ice mummy kit” is kept in a local mountain center, to help excavate and transport a mummy – just in case.

The mummy of Otzi the Iceman lies on display at the Archaeological Museum of Bolzano in Italy.

But it is hard to predict how long precious items like another ice mummy will be preserved in their icy tombs. Professor Atle Nesje of the University of Bergen believes about 90% of the Norwegian glaciers may have melted away by the end of the century.

“Fieldwork will continue as long as there is ice left in the high mountains,” Pilø said. “I do feel a deep sense of foreboding doing this type of work.”

“There is definite urgency,” said Martens. “If the archaeologists do nothing, the artifacts and/or sites that belong to the whole community may be lost forever, without any recording they ever existed.”

“We are probably losing at least a couple of whole sites and at least 100 individual artifacts in Norway each year,” she continued. “We cannot afford, as a society to lose such parts of our common history.”

Warming Arctic