Thawing Ice Reveals Norwegian Mountains Littered with Iron and Bronze Age Artifacts

Thawing Ice Reveals Norwegian Mountains Littered with Iron and Bronze Age Artifacts

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A group of researchers have reportedly discovered artifacts of wood, textile, hide and other organic material on Jotunheimen and the surrounding mountain areas of Oppland, which include Norway's highest mountains at 8,690 feet.

Rich Collection of Artifacts Uncovered in Norwegian Mountains

A paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science reports that a group of researchers directed by James Barrett of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, has radiocarbon dated 153 new finds, including arrows, tools, skis, rags, horse gear and “scaring sticks” (poles used in the hunting of reindeer).

According to Cosmos magazine , the objects were all unearthed from melting ice patches in the region of Jotunheimen and the surrounding mountain areas of Oppland in Norway. According to the experts, the dates shed new light on the occupation of the region, with the researchers concluding that the population and hunting practices in the area increased and decreased drastically in combination with the climate changes there. During periods of extreme cold for example, signs of human presence decrease, while they appear to return again in the warmer periods.

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Mountains of Oppland, Norway. Archaeologist with an arrow aged around 1400 years. (Image: Julian Martinsen, Secrets of the Ice Oppland County Council)

Artifacts Closely Associated with Reindeer Hunting

As the archaeologists report , the majority of the artifacts have something to do with reindeer hunting, a fact that explains the noticeable abnormality in the overall trend of increased human presence during warmer periods. One of the busiest times in Oppland occurs simultaneously with one of the coldest – the Late Antique Little Ice Age that lasted from 536 to 660 AD.

“This was a time of cooling. Harvests may have failed and populations may have dropped. Remarkably, though, the finds from the ice may have continued through this period, perhaps suggesting that the importance of mountain hunting, mainly for reindeer, increased to supplement failing agricultural harvests in times of low temperatures,” Lars Pilø, one of the key authors, writes in the Secrets of the Ice report.

As the number of finds reveal, between the eighth and tenth centuries AD was another busy period, just before the period known as the Viking Age. According to the report, this could be the result of an increase in the number of towns that occurred throughout Europe during this period. In the Norwegian context, this expansion would have created a growing market for reindeer products, and thus more hunting activity as Cosmos magazine reports .

An arrow from 800 AD found on the ground, partly covered by snow. (Image: Espen Finstad, Secrets of the Ice , Oppland County Council)

The Viking Age

The Viking Age is the period from the late eighth century to the mid-11th century in European history, especially Northern European and Scandinavian history, following the Germanic Iron Age. It is the period of history when Scandinavian Norsemen explored Europe by its seas and rivers for trade, raids, colonization, and conquest. In this period, the Norsemen settled in Norse Greenland, Newfoundland, and present-day Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, and territories of the then Byzantine Empire.

Viking travelers and colonists were seen at many points in history as brutal raiders. Many historical documents suggest that their invasion of other countries was retaliation in response to the encroachment upon tribal lands by Christian missionaries, and perhaps by the Saxon Wars prosecuted by Charlemagne and his kin to the south, or were motivated by overpopulation, trade inequities, and the lack of viable farmland in their homeland. Information about the Viking Age is drawn largely from what was written about the Vikings by their enemies, and primary sources of archaeology, supplied with secondary sources such as the Icelandic Sagas.

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Close-up of a walking stick with a runic inscription, radiocarbon-dated to the 11th century AD. Found in a glaciated mountain pass. (Image: Vegard Vike, Museum of Cultural History)

Artifact Finds Decrease from the Start of the Medieval Period

Back to the recent discovery, and co-author of the study and co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program at Oppland County Council, Lars Pilø, notices that artifact finds drop off significantly from the eleventh century, thus the start of the Medieval period, suggesting that this reflects a change of strategy in hunting practice. “At this time, bow-and-arrow hunting for reindeer was replaced with mass-harvesting techniques including funnel-shaped and pitfall trapping systems,” he says. And adds, “This type of intensive hunting probably reduced the number of wild reindeer.”

Furthermore, the decrease of hunting activity continued, reaching a low point about three centuries later that had only partly to do with low reindeer numbers. “Once the plague arrived in the mid-fourteenth century, trade and markets in the north also suffered,” another co-author of the study named Brit Solli in the study press release , “With fewer markets and fewer reindeer, the activity in the high mountains decreased substantially. This downturn could also have been influenced by declining climatic conditions during the Little Ice Age,” he concludes.

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