The permanent frost line along the glaciers is melting and revealing thousands of items previously frozen in ice for millions of years. Christian Casarotto, a glaciologist at the MUSE science museum in Trento claims that “the Adamello Glacier has retreated 2 kilometers [1.2 miles]. At the lowest-altitude points, up to 4 meters [13 feet] of thickness is lost every year.”
Iron age arrow from Trolsteinhoe (James H. Barrett)
In Norway, a team of glacial archaeologists has recovered over two thousand artifacts from the edges of glaciers near Oppland. Some of the items have been dated from 4,000 B.C. and include Viking swords, clothing, horse skulls, arrowheads with wooden shafts, and skis that may have been initially covered with fur and were wider than modern skis. Most objects were grouped together by the approximate time they were covered in ice.
In the French Alps, specifically the Parc National des Eìcrins, an archaeological study has been going on for fourteen years undertaken by Dr Kevin Walsh, a landscape archaeologist at the University of York in a joint project with Florence Mocci of the Centre Camille Julian, CNRS, Aix-en-Provence in France. They are excavating a number of stone houses with nearby corrals for keeping animals. It was previously thought that humans did not live in altitudes over six thousand feet above sea level, but these findings, published in Quaternary International, show that ancient people from the Bronze, Iron, Roman, and Medieval ages did inhabit and farm these areas in the warmer months. The team has also uncovered stone age camps at six thousand five hundred feet above sea level and an arrowhead made of flint at eight thousand feet, the oldest object found in the Alps to date proving Neolithic hunting. Almost two hundred arrows were found, demonstrating that ancient people used the mountain passes to hunt for food especially when crops failed.
The Lendbreen ice patch in southern Norway has yielded a Bronze Age leather shoe, hundreds of wooden sticks, called scare sticks, used to herd reindeer into a small area for slaughter, a six inch crossbow bolt, an iron spear in remarkably good condition, parts of a sled, and a Viking mitten from 1000 A.D. that was complete except for a hole in the thumb. In 2011 a one thousand seven hundred year old kyrtel, a lambswool garment, was found as well. It was large enough to fit a grown man but there is no clue nearby to explain why it was taken off and discarded. Everyday items such as a wooden whisk made of pine dated to the 11th century and a small iron knife with a wooden handle about one thousand years old have been found at the Lendbreen ice patch.
In 2016 an outbreak of anthrax in Siberia killing thousands of reindeer and a twelve year old boy was traced to an ancient reindeer corpse that had been revealed in the melting permafrost. Scientists hadn’t considered that viruses and bacteria would also survive being frozen in the ice.
Bacteria recovered inside the Greenland inland ice. Credit: Miteva 2007
According to secretsoftheice.com, seven hundred and fifty thousand year old bacteria was found in ice on the Tibetan plateau and a team of French scientists found a virus that was thirty thousand years old. Scientists seem to be divided as to whether or not ancient viruses can cause modern epidemics.
The relatively new science of glacial archeology has also revealed a previously unknown “Little Ice Age” that occurred from about 536 A.D. to 660 A.D. that caused crop failure and decline in both human and animal populations. Surprisingly, research has shown that human activity actually increased during this period according to Lars Pilø, co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program at Oppland County Council in an interview with newsweek.com.
As the snow and ice melts in glaciers and ice patches, more and more artifacts are found, but archeologists realize it is a race against time to rescue them before the exposure to air, hikers, and animals destroys them.