Global warming is leading to the retreat of mountain glaciers. Surprisingly, this has created a boon for archaeology. Incredibly well preserved and rare artifacts have emerged from melting glaciers and ice patches in North America, the Alps and Scandinavia. A new archaeological field has opened up – glacial archaeology. The archaeological finds from the ice show that humans have utilized the high mountains more intensely than was previously known – for hunting, transhumance and traveling. New important discoveries are made each year, as the ice continues to melt back.
As glacial archaeologists, our dream discovery is a site where an ancient high mountain trail crossed non-moving ice. On such sites, past travelers left behind lots of artifacts, frozen in time by the ice. These artifacts can tell us when people travelled, when travel was at its most intense, why people travelled across the mountains and even who the travelers were. This information has great historical value.
There are several glaciated mountain passes in the Alps where incredible discoveries have been made. Remember Ötzi? Here in Norway, almost all of our ice sites are connected to reindeer hunting. However, would it be possible to find a glaciated mountain pass here with all its potential treasures? The hunt was on.
August 4th 2011, the year of the big melt. We were surveying at 1900 m, along the upper edge of the Lendbreen ice patch. It was no coincidence that we were working here. In the 1970s and 1980s, several artifacts were reported to the archaeological authorities from this site, including a completely preserved Viking Age spear.
In the previous days of survey, we had found the usual arrows and scaring sticks, which showed that reindeer had been hunted here in the Iron Age. On this day, however, we started finding bits of textile, leather and other artefacts that are not common on hunting sites. What was going on?
While most of the crew started documenting the finds, two team members went ahead. It was a foggy day, and the fog just got denser as they progressed. Suddenly, they stumbled upon a strange wooden object. It looked like a giant slingshot, more than a meter long.
Then the fog lifted, and a large and shallow depression in the ridge appeared. When we had been here the year before, the depression had been filled with snow and ice. The warm summer of 2011 had melted all of this, and exposed the bare ground in the process. As the two team members progressed into the depression, they had to be careful where they put their feet. The ground was littered with artifacts and horse dung.
One of the two team members got his cell phone out of his inner pocket and called the documentation team. He had to focus to keep his voice steady: “Guys, pack up your equipment and meet us in basecamp. We need to talk.”
We had hit the mother lode.
Rescuing the artifacts
The evening in basecamp was filled with excitement. It was an incredible discovery, but we knew we had to act fast. Snow can arrive at any time in the high mountains, burying all the artifacts beyond our reach. In the following days we worked from dawn to dusk to document and collect the many artifacts in the depression before winter snow arrived. Thanks to a great effort by the team, we were able to complete the work in time.
It turned out that this frantic fieldwork was only the beginning. The Lendbreen ice patch continued to melt in the years to follow and more artifacts emerged from the ice. We have undertaken fieldwork on the site from 2011 to 2015 and again in 2018 and 2019, each time collecting many finds.
The survey at Lendbreen now covers c. 250000 m2, which equals 35 football fields, except that these football fields are on a 30-degree slope and the playing field is a combination of loose scree, bedrock and ice. To our knowledge, this is the largest glacial archaeology survey ever conducted.
It has been a demanding fieldwork, in often appalling weather conditions. However, the reward has made it all worthwhile. The results from the fieldwork have made it clear that we have indeed discovered a lost mountain pass – the dream site for glacial archaeologists.
The lost mountain pass
The lost mountain pass at Lendbreen is an incredible archaeological site. It has yielded hundreds of finds from ancient travelers, including clothing, dead packhorses and remains of sleds from the period AD 300-1500. It also has preserved cairns marking the route, and even a stone-built shelter in the pass area.
We knew from oral history that local people had crossed the Lomseggen ridge (c. 1900 m) through three known passes en-route to or from their summer farms. Remarkably, the glaciated pass at Lendbreen is not among the known passes, even though finds and structures clearly show that it must once have served the same purpose.
Archaeological ice sites are different…
Before we dig into the details of the Lendbreen site, it is useful to know that archaeological ice sites in the high mountains are quite different from regular archaeological sites in the lowlands. There is a lot of artifact displacement by meltwater, ice movement and wind, blurring the original patterns of distribution. Simply put: The artifacts are only rarely found where they were originally lost. At Lendbreen, we found four pieces of the same Bronze Age ski, which could be nicely refitted, but were separated by 250 m. Interpreting what the artefact patterns mean is thus best approached with caution.
The route crossing Lendbreen was used by packhorses when the rough terrain was covered by snow. Thus, the artifacts were very likely originally lost or discarded on snow. However, until the big melt in 2019, nearly all the finds in the pass area were found lying on the ground. This is in fact quite normal on archaeological ice sites. The artifacts have melted out one or more times since their time of loss on the snow and ended up on the ground, only to be re-covered by snow and ice (read more about ice patches and glaciers as archaeological sites here). Finding the artifacts on the bare ground today does not mean that they were originally lost when the area was free of snow and ice. Misunderstanding this fundamental issue was what got the Ötzi investigation off on the wrong foot (read here).
The glacial ice preserves artefacts of organic materials, such as wood, bone, wool and leather. Wood, birch bark and bone preserve best of these and are often the only materials left on sites that have been repeatedly exposed. Textiles and leather disappear more rapidly. This means that we have to be careful not to over-interpret maps of artifact distribution as some of the patterns may be caused by differences in preservation. The clear concentration of artifacts and horse dung in the depression just below the pass is mainly caused by good preservation conditions here.
The cairns and the shelter
Luckily, we are not left only with the artifacts to show us where the route crossed the ice. A line of cairns shows the route coming up the Lendbreen ice patch from the north and going down on the southern side. In the pass area, there are a large number of cairns of varying sizes and shapes and even a stone-built shelter.
Other routes crossing the Lomseggen ridge do not have nearly the same amount of cairns and Lendbreen is the only one with a shelter. This singles out Lendbreen as a pass of special significance. You get the impression that maybe not all of the travelers here were locals, and therefore the route needed to be better marked and provided with extra protection. The high number of large and small cairns in the pass does remind one of the cairns built by tourists today, as memorials of their visit.
The packhorses and sled remains
Along the line of cairns, we have found bones of packhorses that died during the crossing of the ice. The earliest of these bones is dated to the 5th-6th century AD. Lendbreen is an ice patch without crevasses, so we can rule out falling into a crevasse as a cause of death for the packhorses. The trip over the pass was quite short, so lack of fodder is also out. More likely, the packhorses suffered a fall and a broken leg or they died from exhaustion (read more about high mountain pack animals here).
There are also a number of horseshoe finds. The iron horseshoes are heavy and do not displace as easily as the light organic finds. Together with the cairns, they are a secure pin-pointer to where the route crossed the ice.
In the pass area where preservation conditions are better, there are thousands of pieces of horse dung. Radiocarbon dates of this dung have yielded Late Iron Age and Medieval dates. There is actually so much dung in the pass area that the ice has a brownish colour in some places. There must have been many horses going through the pass.
The route crossing Lendbreen seems to have worked in an opposite way to mountain passes in the Alps and in the Himalayas. In these mountains, passes were often closed during climatic cold periods due to glacier advances. In contrast, the route crossing Lendbreen would only have allowed horses to pass during periods with snow covering the rough ground.
Before we started fieldwork at Lendbreen, we were told a local story about the discovery of a sled there in the 1960s. There are a number of such stories of fantastic discoveries from the ice in our county (including one about a mammoth, which absolutely cannot be true), and we did not put too much faith in it. A check of the area where the sled was supposed to have melted out gave nothing.
The fieldwork in the pass area has shown, however, that there may be some truth to the story. The giant slingshot-like object found in the pass, together with a similar piece, are what is known locally as a “tong”. They were used to secure the load on sleds carrying fodder (read more here).
Incredibly, we may even have found remains of such fodder. More than 60 cut branches have been recovered from the site, mainly in the pass area where preservation conditions are good. They have been examined by specialists. Their analysis show that the branches probably are the remains of leaf fodder. This is not a trivial question, as transporting leaf fodder on sleds or on packhorses at nearly 2000 m during wintertime must surely have been a daunting task. We have radiocarbon-dated five samples of the leaf fodder, which covered the period AD 700-1400.
Other finds point to transport as well. There are a number of finds of withe locks, wooden plugs and other artefacts, which were likely used for securing the loads on packhorses or on sleds. As such artefacts are rarely preserved in other contexts, their exact function remain somewhat uncertain.
The clothing and textile
It is quite typical to finds remains of textiles in mountain passes and this is also the case at Lendbreen. The most famous find from Lendbreen is a complete Iron Age tunic, dated to AD 300, the oldest piece of clothing found in Norway.
There are other intriguing textile finds from Lendbreen, most notably a very rare Viking Age mitten. It is made from patches of different textiles.
Several shoes made from hide have also been recovered at Lendbreen. The best preserved is from the 11thcentury AD. The shoes had the hairs on the outside, to provide a grip on the snow.
Why are there so many finds of clothing at Lendbreen and in other mountain passes? While the mitten may have been taken by a gust of wind, and shoes may have been discarded after use, the loss of a complete tunic is harder to understand. It may represent clothing discarded during the last stages of hypothermia (read more here).
In addition to the clothing, there are more than 50 textile rags in the pass area. Such rags are also occasionally found on hunting sites, but never in such numbers as at Lendbreen. We discuss possible reasons why they were lost in this blogpost.
The everyday objects
The ice at Lendbreen also contained a number of well-preserved objects from everyday life. They are among the most fascinating finds from the site. Most of the objects, but not all, are easily recognizable as to their function, as similar objects are still used today or have been used until recently.
A 70 cm long wooden object, ornamented with geometric patterns, was an enigma to us when it was found. It is radiocarbon-dated to c. AD 800. We put a picture of it on our Facebook page, and it was immediately identified as a distaff by several of our followers interested in historical textiles. A distaff is a tool used in spinning. It is designed to hold the unspun fibers, which are wrapped around the distaff.
Another remarkable find is a wooden whisk, dated to the 11th century AD. Such whisks are still in use in Norway today. Our whisk is pointed at one end, which is not the normal shape. This leads us to believe that it may have served a secondary purpose, such as a tent peg.
A small and worn iron knife with a handle in birchwood was found in the pass area. Knives are also found on hunting sites, so we cannot be sure that it was not lost during reindeer hunting. However, the knife is somewhat smaller than other butchering knives we have found. In addition, the knife is radiocarbon-dated to the 11thcentury AD, and there are no other hunting finds at Lendbreen from this period. The knife was probably lost by a traveler.
Another artefact that we were originally mystified by was a small wooden object with pointed ends. It turned out to be a bit for young animals, mainly goat kids and lambs, to stop them from suckling their mother. It was identified by local elders, who used such bits (in juniper) until the 1930s. Ours is also in juniper, but radiocarbon-dated to the 11th century AD.
Walking sticks, complete or broken, are quite common at Lendbreen. One of them carried a runic inscription with the name of its owner – Joar. The type of runes and the radiocarbon date of the stick both point to the 11th century AD.
The history of the pass
The radiocarbon dates of the finds tell us that people started using the pass around AD 300. There are no transport-related finds earlier than this, and it is unlikely that earlier finds could have been lost due to exposure. The pass area contains a number of other finds earlier than AD 300, such as a 4000-year-old bear skull and a Bronze Age arrow. Since they are preserved, earlier travel-related finds should also still be present.
The AD 300 start date fits well with what we know about human activity in the surrounding areas, mainly based on pollen analysis. Human impact on the landscape, both in the valleys and in the mountains, increased around this time. The use of the pass is thus linked to increasing economic activity in the region.
The transport through the mountain pass at Lendbreen peaked markedly around AD 1000 and then declined through the Middle Ages. The time of the peak, which is the transition between the Viking Age and the medieval period here in Norway, was a time of increased urbanization and commerce, so this fits well. It is harder to understand that the activity in the pass declined after that (see below).
Where did the route over Lendbreen lead? Based on the cairns found during our survey of Lendbreen and the Lomseggen ridge, the route over Lendbreen led to the Neto summer farms. This could have been the end destination, but it was also possible to continue from Neto to the Sognefjord where you could acquire salt, barley and stockfish and sell local products, e.g. from reindeer. Therefore, the traffic through the Lendbreen pass was both local and long distance.
The finds give us limited, but important information about what was transported through the mountain pass. The leaf fodder was one commodity. This was local goods, transported on sleds in the winter to provide much needed extra fodder to carry the farm animals through the winter. We also have one find of raw wool, packed in a container made of birch bark. Based on historical sources, farm products such as cheese and butter would be transported from the summer farms back to the main farm, and that could have happened here as well. In addition, local products, such as reindeer pelts and antlers, were commodities for which there was a market in towns, even outside Norway. Some of these products may also have gone through the Lendbreen pass.
Since the route over Lendbreen only works with horses when snow is covering the rough ground, we believe that the route was mainly used in late winter or early summer.
Why was the pass abandoned?
The number of finds from the Lendbreen mountain pass decline during the medieval period. This is remarkable, as trade and commerce were increasing up to AD 1350, and so was the population. The youngest find is a horse cranium from c. AD 1700. It is still not quite clear why the traffic through the pass declined already from the 12th-13th centuries AD.
The Black Death led to a dramatic population decrease in the mid-14th century, and this, in combination with the arrival of the Little Ice Age, may have reduced human activity in the high mountains. When large-scale summer farming resumed around 1600, Lendbreen was no longer an important pass, and soon went out of use. Instead, three other passes were used and preserved in local oral history. The Lendbreen pass was lost.
Why the route using the Lendbreen mountain pass was no longer used is not clear. Perhaps its use was always more linked to long distance travel than local travel to/from the summer farms. Maybe the long distance travel using the Lendbreen route had declined during the Early Medieval period, and been substituted by other routes. This remains speculative.
The routes crossing Lomseggen were finally abandoned in the mid-19thcentury, when better roads were built in the valleys, linking the Neto summer farms to Skjåk. This made it possible to bring animals to the summer farms at Neto in an easier way than crossing the nearly 2000 m high ridge.
The 2019 big melt
After our paper on Lendbreen was accepted by the journal Antiquity, the Lendbreen ice patch suffered an incredible melt in the fall of 2019. Finds appeared on the surface of the ice, showing that the melt had reached ice layers not previously touched by melt. The ice in the pass area was littered with horse dung. Basically, nearly all the remaining ice from the time of the route melted out.
The 2019 melt probably was Lendbreen’s swan song, concerning finds from the mountain route. What a finale it was! A wooden box with the lid still on turned out to be a tinderbox.
We found a beautifully preserved horse snowshoe, It was a neat confirmation of our hypothesis that the route was used when covered by snow. We also found a near complete skeleton of a packhorse. Even a dog with a collar and leash melted out of the ice. The 2019 finds are not dated yet, but we believe that they belong to the main period of use for the mountain route, i.e. AD 300-1500/1700.
The ice in the high mountains will continue to melt back as temperatures keep rising. The ice containing the remains of the lost mountain pass at Lendbreen is probably gone now, but the melt will uncover other ice sites. Just after finishing work at Lendbreen in 2019, finds started melting out in a mountain pass further west on the ridge. During a quick survey on the last day before winter snow arrived, we managed to recover an Iron Age shoe and a piece of leaf fodder here. There will be more to come.
You can download our Antiquity paper here.