4,000-Year-Old Climbing Gear Discovered After Alpine Ice in Switzerland Retreats

A view of the Swiss Alps between Zurich and Interlaken. Bronze age items have been found on an Alpine pass. Artur Staszewski

Melting snow has revealed a haul of ancient bronze age artefacts on an Alpine pass, showing that the route has been in use for at least 4,000 years.

According to a statement from the local government, among the items were a box of roughly ground flour, fragments of bows, three flint arrowheads, a container made out of cow's horn, and some small pieces of leather.

The equipment, found in the Lötschberg pass near to the city of Bern in Switzerland, has been carbon-dated back to 2,000-1,800 years B.C., making it the oldest archaeological find on the pass.

In the past, Roman and medieval artefacts had been discovered in the area, as well as a container from the Iron Age that has traces of fire, suggesting it may have been used to carry embers.

But the new finds show that even 4,000 years ago, hunters, shepherds and traders were using the route to cross between the Bernese highlands at one end, and the Valais area, a mountainous region containing the famous Matterhorn peak.

The unveiling of the new find was gradual. In 2011, the guardian of a hut in the area notified the local authorities that melting snow had revealed some fragments.

Further, limited excavations were possible in 2012, but then for the next three summers the remaining items stayed covered up throughout the summer. Only in 2017 were the archaeologists able to complete their work.

The researchers believe that the items make up the inventory of a bronze age mountaineer. The number of scraps of material suggest that he or she would have worn some kind of backpack, and a bag of birch bark.

Discoveries prompted by melting snow and ice are not unusual in the Swiss alps; and some of them are more grisly than others.

In 2012, the body of Jonathan Conville, 27, who vanished from the Matterhorn in 1979, was revealed as his final resting place unfroze.