Archaeologists trekking through the Jotunheimen Mountains in Norway’s Innlandet County came across a remarkable find — an intact shell arrow dating back to the Early Bronze Age. Fastened with an arrowhead made of freshwater pearl mussel, the well-preserved hunting tool dates back 3,600 years and is one of eight shell arrows that have emerged from melting ice in Norway in recent years.
On September 13, archaeologist Espen Finstad and his research team came across the artifact while checking a site as part of a routine monitoring job they typically run at the end of the field season. While the discovery of the ancient weapon was an unprecedented surprise that day, it is just one of hundreds that the Secrets of the Ice glacial archaeology team has uncovered over the past decade due to climate change.
“The glaciers and ice patches are retreating and releasing artifacts that have been frozen in time by the ice,” Lars Holger Pilø, co-director of the archaeology program, told Hyperallergic. The Secrets of the Ice research initiative officially began in 2011 as a collaboration between Innlandet County’s Department of Cultural Heritage and the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo. However, the archaeologists have been continuously rescuing artifacts from Innlandet’s glaciers and ice patches since the fall of 2006, when the first “big melt” hit the Jotunheimen Mountains, located northwest of Oslo. Home of the mythological jötnar, the rock and frost giants in Norse folklore, the Scandinavian mountain range is one of Europe’s highest and typically covered in snow year-round.
“Now the artifacts are exposed and deteriorating fast, so we are in a race against time to find and rescue the artifacts,” Pilø said.
So far, the Secrets of the Ice research team has mapped 66 ice sites and recovered approximately 4,000 finds including hunting gear and tools, textile remnants, transportation equipment, and clothing materials. The team has also found biological specimens such as antlers, bones, and dung.
“Arrows with shell arrowheads only became known in Europe when they started melting out of the ice in Norway,” Pilø explained about the recent discovery, which is “the best preserved” shell arrow the team has found so far.
As global warming transforms Norway’s mountainous landscape, Finstad, Pilø and their fellow glacier archaeologists are rushing to collect the exposed artifacts, which continue to get older as the ice continues to melt.
“Most of the ice here in Norway will be gone in this century,” Pilø said. “You can say that we are melting back in time.”
Just last week, the team recovered another arrow, this one with an intact quartzite arrowhead, that is “probably 3000 to 3500 years old,” according to Pilø. The team also found an iron horse bit with remnants of a leather bridle, a Medieval horseshoe, a Viking age knife, and an arrowhead for a crossbow bolt this month.
“The finds are incredible, but the reason they are melting out is sad,” Pilø said, explaining how the ice melt will lead to drastic changes in Norway’s landscape, local wildlife, agriculture, tourism, and hydro-electrical power plants dependent on glacial water.
“It will be a very different world,” he lamented. “While we are in the field though, we try to push this aside and enjoy rescuing as much as we can of the history of this melting world.”