Archaeologists Extract 1,300-Year-Old Wooden Ski From Norwegian Ice

Seven years after finding the first half of the pair, researchers have finally reunited the ski with its mate

Archaeologists examine the second ski after it was freed from the ice
The second ski was better preserved than the first, perhaps because it was buried more deeply in the ice. Andreas Christoffer Nilsson / Secrets of the Ice

In 2014, archaeologists found a lone wooden ski frozen in ice on Digervarden Mountain in southern Norway. Now, reports Andrew Curry for Science magazine, researchers have uncovered the other half of the 1,300-year-old pair—and together, they’re among the best-preserved ancient skis ever found.

The newly recovered ski is in better condition than the one found seven years ago. This may be because it was buried more deeply in the ice, writes Lars Pilø, an archaeologist with the Glacier Archaeology Program (GAP) in Norway, for the organization’s blog.

Measuring about 74 inches long and 7 inches wide, the second ski is slightly larger than its mate. Both feature raised footholds. Leather straps and twisted birch bark bindings found with the skis would have been attached through holes in the footholds. The new ski shows signs of heavy wear and eventual repairs.

Archaeologists Extract 1,300-Year-Old Wooden Ski From Norwegian Ice
The skis may have belonged to a hunter or traveler. Espen Finstad / Secrets of the Ice

“The skis are not identical, but we should not expect them to be,” Pilø explains. “The skis are handmade, not mass-produced. They have a long and individual history of wear and repair before an Iron Age skier used them together and they ended up in the ice.”

As glacial melting increases due to climate change, archaeologists are discovering more clues to ancient life in icy northern places, including parts of Norway. GAP has found numerous artifacts attesting to ties between Viking-era residents of southern Norway’s mountains and the outside world, reports Daniel Burgess for Columbia Climate School’s GlacierHub blog. 

“The [finds] show that the high mountains of southern Norway were not remote areas, devoid of outside contact,” Pilø tells GlacierHub.

Since the discovery of the first ski, archaeologists have been monitoring the area using satellite images and, in 2016, an in-person survey.

“This year, we could see on satellite imagery that the ice patch had retreated compared to 2014,” writes Pilø in the blog post.

Two researchers visited the site on September 20 and found the second ski firmly lodged in ice around 15 feet from the spot where the first one was found. By the time a larger team with more equipment was able to reach the spot, new snowfall had covered it again. Luckily, the group managed to find the second ski using GPS data and photographs. After clearing the area with a snow shovel, they used an ice ax and lukewarm water to free the ski. 

According to David Nikel of Life in Norway, the Digervarden ice patch has previously yielded artifacts and monuments related to reindeer hunting. Archaeologists have also found several cairns that may have been associated with an ancient mountain trail. They speculate that the skis’ owner was a hunter, traveler or both.

Archaeologists Extract 1,300-Year-Old Wooden Ski From Norwegian Ice
Close-up view of the repaired foothold of the 1,300-year-old ski Espen Finstad / Secrets of the Ice

After the discovery of the first ski, the team wondered whether its underside had once been lined with fur, as some ancient skis were. The new ski solves that mystery: It has a furrow like those found on some other ancient and modern skis, which would have had no purpose if it were covered, leading the researchers to believe that the skis did not feature fur.

Per National Geographic, hunters in Europe and Asia began using skis to chase game around the end of the last Ice Age. Disputed evidence of skiing found in China dates to as early as 8000 B.C.E., and the oldest confirmed ski, unearthed in Russia, dates to 6000 B.C.E. Archaeologists in Scandinavia have found wooden skis and ski-like artifacts dated to as early as 3200 B.C.E.

In June, Pilø and his colleagues announced the discovery of a centuries-old beeswax candle and a lamb’s wool tunic dated to around 300 C.E. at the Lendbreen ice patch, as George Dvorsky reported for Gizmodo at the time. That patch is located in the Jotunheim Mountains, due south of Digervarden.