Warming Climate in Norway Reveals Relics of Ancient Viking Trade Route

Melting ice has receded from a mountain pass, unearthing pelts, shoes and stone structures from thousands of years ago.

Article by Henrik Pryser Libell and 
Credit…Espen Finstad/Secretsoftheice.com

OSLO — Ice patches that melted from the slopes of a remote mountain pass in Norway have revealed artifacts that provide new insight into the livelihood of hunters, traders and travelers along a route thousands of years old, archaeologists said this month.

The relics of this distant past include tunics and mittens woven with wool, leather shoes, arrows are still adorned with feathers, and snowshoes made for horses. Giant stone cairns mark old pathways once used by traders to find their way through fog and heavy snow. Antlers, bone and animal dung have also been found, the archaeologists behind the project said.

The discoveries, outlined in the scientific journal Antiquity, were made on the central mountain range in Norway’s Innlandet County by the Glacier Archaeology Program, one of many programs worldwide studying what glaciers and ice patches are laying bare as they shift and melt because of climate change.

A horse snowshoe.
Credit…Espen Finstad/Secretsoftheice.com

Archaeologists said that the discoveries have contributed to evidence that a mountain pass at Lendbreen, on the Lomseggen ridge in north-central Norway, was part of a larger network connecting it to the wider Viking world, making it the “first such ice site discovered in Northern Europe.”

Previously, they said, the archaeology of glaciated mountain passes had been derived from research in the Alps.

“The findings are rich,” said Lars Holger Pilo, a Norwegian archaeologist working on the project. “It is obvious that the mountains have been more actively in use than previously believed. Although covered in ice, they have used them to pass, from farms in the area, or from one side of the mountains to the other.”

The program started work on the ice patch at Lendbreen in 2006, but attention increased after a wool tunic, which later was dated to the Bronze Age, was found in 2011. That led to subsequent surveys and discoveries of artifacts such as pieces of sleds, remains of horses and kitchen utensils, suggesting the route was used for trade, hunting and farming.

The findings show the pass was used from about A.D. 300 to 1500, with a peak of activity during the Viking Age in the year 1000 that reflected its importance during a period of long-range trade and commerce in Scandinavia.

The items tell a story of how the route was used and reflect local priorities, such as how farming migrated from the bottom of the valley to higher elevations in summer to take advantage of long daylight hours. It was well traveled, and it connected to other parts of the country and ultimately to ports for export.

“The thing that was really revealing is when you look at the chronology of the artifacts,” said Dr. James Barrett, a medieval and environmental archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, who has been working with Norwegian archaeologists on the project since 2012.

“You can literally walk in the footsteps of the past,” he said. “It really is showing that in what would seem to be the most remote possible place, the highest elevation is caught up in broader world trends.”

The research in Norway has contributed to the body of archaeological study centered on items found under ice, either in glaciers that rumble roughshod across terrain, or in ice patches that are more stationary and commonly yield pieces that are intact.

A small and worn knife, found in the Lendbreen mountain pass.
Credit…Secretsoftheice.com

These discoveries have illuminated scientists’ understanding of transhumance, which describes how, where and why people moved from one place to another for trade, food, marriage or customs — sometimes over icy mountain passes rather than through the easier terrain, but longer distances, of valleys.

In 1991, hikers accidentally discovered the remains of a man, later nicknamed Ötzi the Tyrolean Iceman, preserved in 5,300 years’ worth of ice and snow in the Italian Alps. This marked the start of a promising period of archaeology that has gained pace as climate warming has revealed more artifacts, said Dr. Stephanie Rogers, a research assistant professor at Auburn University’s department of geosciences.

Examination of bacteria from the Iceman has contributed to the understanding of human migration and the movement of pathogens, including the one that causes stomach ulcers, to other parts of the world.

Dr. Rogers, who has done research on glacier archaeology in the Alps, said the discovery of the Iceman “really flipped a switch.”

“What was that person doing up there?” she asked, adding that researchers realized that “if we found something in this place, we are going to find something in other places.”

The field of transhumance has gained momentum in the past 10 to 20 years as artifacts have been laid bare because of the warming climate melting ice patches and moving glaciers, Dr. Rogers said.

“Perhaps this site in Norway had the perfect characteristics for transhumance across the border,” she said. “But maybe it was just the perfect setting, passed down for hundreds or thousands of years. It seems like this one in particular is a treasure trove in terms of artifacts.”

Dr. Pilo said the Norwegian team did not find human remains, possibly because relatives of anyone missing likely would have come to rescue their family members. The tunic might have been flung off by a person in the irrational throes of hypothermia, he said.

Although ice patches move less than glaciers do, some of the finds on the Lendbreen patch were displaced vertically, and others were shifted by meltwater and strong winds.

The ruins of an undated stone-built shelter were situated near the top of the ice patch, making Lendbreen the only one of five mountain passes on the Lomseggen ridge to have such a shelter and a large number of cairns. Transportation-related artifacts, such as remains of sleds, walking sticks and pieces of a Bronze Age ski, were also laid bare.

The movement, or lack of movement, of some objects can also be telling. Iron horseshoes and nails are less likely to have been displaced than the lighter organic objects, and “should therefore provide a reliable indication of the route,” the researchers wrote.

Although some of the artifacts were found in pieces, “they do not obliterate what remains a clear trail of features and finds that delineate a short crossing place over the mountain ridge,” according to the findings.

“It was clearly a route of special significance,” the researchers said.

Henrik Pryser Libell reported from Oslo, and Christine Hauser from Nantucket, Mass.

This article was originally published on April 16, 2020 in The New York Times