Melting Ice in Norway Reveals Ancient Arrows

Finds from reindeer hunts span 5,000 years, from the Stone Age to the medieval era

ice patch
The Langfonne ice patch has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years. Secrets of the Ice / Glacier Archaeology Program, Innlandet County Council

A melting ice patch in Norway has revealed the remnants of dozens of arrows and other artifacts, some dating to the Stone Age, Chris Baraniuk reports for New Scientist.

Researchers from the Universities of Cambridge, Oslo and Bergen have discovered 68 arrow shafts, some with arrowheads attached. The arrowheads are made of a range of materials, including bone, slate, iron and mussel shell. In some cases, the ice even preserved twine and tar used to hold the arrow together. They published their findings earlier this week in the journal The Holocene.

William Taylor, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who was not involved in the study, tells New Scientist that the discoveries represent a “treasure trove” not usually found in a single patch of melting ice.

“You might expect a handful of items if you were lucky,” he says. “It’s extremely rare and extremely important.”

The researchers found the artifacts at the Langfonne ice patch in Norway’s Jotunheimen Mountains. Back in 2006, glacier archaeologist Reidar Marstein found a well-preserved shoe at the site.

“We thought that the shoe could perhaps be as old as the Viking Age if we were lucky,” archaeologist Lars Holgar Pilø, of the Innlandet County Council Department of Cultural Heritage, writes on Secrets of the Ice, a website maintained by the researchers. “When the radiocarbon date came back it turned out to be much older—3300 years old, from the Early Bronze Age. That find was a real shocker for us.”

Since then, the team has delved into the site, discovering artifacts spanning more than 5,000 years. The oldest are around 6,000 years old, while the most recent are from around 1300 A.D. Given hundreds of reindeer antlers and bones left on the ice, the researchers say the area has been a good hunting spot for millennia.

The finds are the product of a dramatic reduction in ice at the patch due to climate change. It is now less than 30 percent of its size just 20 years ago, and it has split into three different patches.

The team found arrows used to hunt reindeer from the Stone Age through the medieval era. Secrets of the Ice / Glacier Archaeology Program, Innlandet County Council

Andrew Curry reports at National Geographic that, early on in their investigation of the ice patch artifacts, researchers believed that items were preserved in a clear chronological fashion, which meant it would be possible to look back at how human activity changed as the ice patch grew or shrunk. But, as it turned out, arrows from totally different eras were discovered close together.

“The idea that you find the oldest evidence when the ice patch is at its smallest—that isn’t really true,” Montana State Parks archaeologist Rachel Reckin, who was not part of the research team, tells National Geographic. “It looks like gravity and water are moving artifacts down a great deal.”

However, using radiocarbon dating to check the age of different items does reveal usage patterns. In some periods, many reindeer bones, but few arrows, were found suggesting little presence of human hunters. Instead, the reindeer were most likely killed by wolverines. In contrast, Pilø tells National Geographic, from 600 to 1300 A.D., “there’s a lot of arrow finds, but hardly any reindeer material. That’s not a coincidence.” In this era, which includes the centuries when Vikings were traveling around the seas of northern Europe, raiding coastal communities, human hunters probably harvested large numbers of reindeer, selling their fur and antlers to other communities.

Earlier this year, Megan Gannon reported for Smithsonian magazine, Pilø’s team published findings from another ice patch in the Jotunheim Mountains showing heavy usage of a mountain pass during the Viking Age. That showed how remote locations were connected with the economies and societies of other parts of Europe.

Pilø writes on Secrets of the Ice that the changing patterns in reindeer hunting are particularly interesting in light of other findings, such as the discovery that some combs from eighth-century Denmark were made from reindeer antlers

“It supports recent ideas that long-distance trade in low cost commodities in Northern Europe started earlier than previously believed,” he writes.

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