Ancient human artefacts recovered from Norway’s ice


Melting ice reveals the ebb and flow of reindeer hunting in the mountainous far north. Andrew Masterson reports.


From under the ice, a hunter's shoe, dating from 1300 BCE.
From under the ice, a hunter's shoe, dating from 1300 BCE.
Vegard Vike, Museum of Cultural History/University of Oslo

Melting ice deposits in Norway have revealed over 2000 human artefacts, some dating as back as 4000 BCE, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct a detailed picture of life in the far north of Europe.

In a paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, a team led by James Barrett of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, UK, report radiocarbon dating of 153 of the finds, including arrows, tools, skis, rags, horse gear and “scaring sticks” – poles used in the hunting of reindeer.

The items were all recovered from melting ice patches in the region of Jotunheimen and the surrounding mountain areas of Oppland.

A tunic from 300 BCE.
A tunic from 300 BCE.
Mårten Teigen, Museum of Cultural History/University of Oslo

The dates provide insight into activity in the area, with a general pattern emerging to show that population and hunting practises increased and decreased broadly in line with climate changes. In periods of extreme cold, signs of human presence decrease – perhaps because people were driven away due to ice – and pick up again during warmer periods.

Most of the artefacts are associated with reindeer hunting, and this might explain a significant anomaly in the over all trend of increased human presence during warmer periods.

One of the busiest times in Oppland coincides with one of the coldest – the Late Antique Little Ice Age, which ran from 536 to 660CE.

“This was a time of cooling,” says Barrett. “Harvests may have failed and populations may have dropped. Remarkably, though, the finds from the ice may have continued through this period, perhaps suggesting that the importance of mountain hunting, mainly for reindeer, increased to supplement failing agricultural harvests in times of low temperatures.”

Another busy period – at least, as measured by the number of finds – was between the eight and tenth centuries CE, just before the period known as the Viking Age.

This, suggests Barrett, may be the result of an increase in the number of towns that occurred throughout Europe during this period. In the Norwegian context, this expansion would have created a growing market for reindeer products, and thus more hunting activity.

Artefact finds drop off from the eleventh century, the start of the Medieval period. One of Barrett’s co-authors, Lars Pilø, suggests this reflects a change of strategy in hunting practice.

Iron Age arrow.
Iron Age arrow.
J. H. Barrett

“At this time, bow-and-arrow hunting for reindeer was replaced with mass-harvesting techniques including funnel-shaped and pitfall trapping systems,” he says. “This type of intensive hunting probably reduced the number of wild reindeer.”

The drop-off in hunting activity continued, reaching a low point about 300 years later that was only partly to do with low reindeer numbers.

“Once the plague arrived in the mid-fourteenth century, trade and markets in the north also suffered,” says co-author Brit Solli.

“With fewer markets and fewer reindeer the activity in the high mountains decreased substantially. This downturn could also have been influenced by declining climatic conditions during the Little Ice Age.”

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Andrew Masterson is news editor of Cosmos.
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