Archaeologists Race Melting Glaciers to Rescue Iron and Bronze Age Artifacts Exposed by Climate Change

Glacial archaeologists are racing melting ice in Norway to rescue thousands of ancient artifacts exposed by climate change—revealing something surprising about a mysterious and little-known ice age.

A team of scientists from Norway and the United Kingdom working in the mountains of Oppland, Norway, have discovered more than 2,000 artifacts, including Iron Age and Bronze Age weapons, remains of pack horses and even prehistoric skis. Many are made from organic materials (like wood or animal hide) that archaeologists rarely have a chance to study; in pretty much every other environment, they would have decomposed. A paper describing the research was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

unnamed Glacial archaeologists systematically survey the mountainous areas of Oppland, Norway. Johan Wildhagen

Radiocarbon dating during the course of the research placed some of the objects, like the nearly 200 arrows, as far back as 4000 B.C. Ancient hunter-gatherer communities in the region lived off reindeer and became proficient farmers, even at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet.

According to lead author Lars Pilø, co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program at Oppland County Council, the skis differ from the modern-day version considerably. They're broader, and might have at one point been partly covered in fur. The researchers also found an Iron Age tunic, a Bronze Age shoe (just one) and the remains of sleds.

"The glaciated mountain passes, you can find basically anything," Pilø told Newsweek. “Obviously because of the fantastic artifacts there’s a lot of focus on the individual finds. But I think what is more important, perhaps, is the bigger picture."

That bigger picture includes a counterintuitive discovery by the researchers about a period known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age, which lasted from around 536 A.D to 660 A.D. During that period, the planet grew colder, harvests failed and populations fell.

unnamed (1) An Iron Age arrow from Trollsteinhøe. James H. Barrett

But that profound environmental change led to a surprising spike in output, the team believes. The sheer volume of artifacts the archaeologists recovered from that period suggests that human human activity and production actually increased. Their compromised ability to grow crops forced the inhabitants to intensify all their other means of livelihood, said Pilø. It's an early and remarkable display of climate adaption.

Pilø also acknowledged that the ability to do this kind of field work is a mixed blessing; the warmer the planet gets and the more the glaciers melt, the more he and his colleagues stand to discover.

“This is sort of a dark archaeology, where we benefit from climate change that's making this ice high in the mountains melt,” Pilø said. "There’s not much we can do stop it, but at least we can be up there trying to find what we can.”