Climate change is bad for the planet, but groundbreaking for archaeology

Take a picture before it melts.
Take a picture before it melts.
Image: AP Photo/Felipe Dana
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On September 19, 1991, Erika and Helmut Simon, a couple from Germany, were hiking in the Alps near the border of Italy and Austria when they came across a human body half-embedded in a slab of ice.

Their first thought was that it was some young mountaineer who’d met his fate after a gruesome climbing accident.

On closer inspection, however, archaeologists at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck, in Austria, found out that the body was, in fact, about 5,000 years old. Otzi the Iceman, as he came to be called, used to be a 46-year-old man who was five feet tall and lived in the Chalcolithic or Copper Age.

With global temperatures on the rise, mountain ice has begun to thaw at a drastic pace. As a result, ancient artifacts long lost between layers of ice and snow are starting to come to the surface. Since the 1990s, Otzi is just one of the thousands of remarkable discoveries that archaeologists have unearthed from glaciers and ice patches across the world.

Bad for the planet, good for science?

“Glacial archaeology has developed as an archaeological discipline because of the melting of mountain ice, brought on by climate change,” said Lars Holger Pilø, co-director of the Glacial Archaeology Program in Norway’s Oppland.

“Glacial archaeology is quite different from normal archaeology in the lowlands. Besides the very different environment, we only have a short time window each year to conduct fieldwork— between when the snow from the previous winter has melted and the new winter snow arrives.”

Conducting fieldwork as a glacial archaeologist involves little to no digging, and a lot more surveying, according to Pilø. Archaeologists have to pack heavy and use durable high-altitude tents to stave off the cold. And they bring packhorses wherever possible.

Right now, Yukon and Oppland are the only two places in the world that are home to permanent rescue programs for archaeological finds in ice, Pilø explained. “I got a chance to join glacial archaeology in Oppland in 2007, and basically just dropped everything else to get involved. This was a new archaeological field with exciting finds and fieldwork, so that was a no-brainer for me.”

In 2011, the Glacial Archaeology Program in Oppland received permanent funding from the Norwegian State. Pilø works at the Oppland County Council’s Cultural Heritage Department, which in turn coordinates its activities with the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo.

But it’s not as easy as simply waiting around for the ice to melt and reveal the treasures housed within. “When we are lucky, we are able to find the artifacts when they melt out for the first time and are incredibly well preserved, but more often the finds have been in and out of the ice a number of times,” Pilø said. “We search for pieces of human history emerging from the melting ice. As the ice retreats, the finds are getting steadily older.”

The degree to which an artifact has been thawed or exposed to the elements impacts how well it can be rescued and preserved. Some of these artifacts, such as objects made from textiles, hide, and leather, are rapidly lost after exposure, while other finds like wood and bone can endure due to the cold and dry conditions.

“Ongoing climate change is a very dark background to our finds,” Pilø reflected.

Melting time

Part of what makes glacial archaeology such a precarious, time-sensitive discipline is that as more glacial ice melts, temperatures in the surrounding atmosphere are rising steadily as well. So, while archaeologists dig out progressively older and more valuable specimens, the chances of preserving them is getting slimmer.

Melting ice has given way to this exciting new field of discovery, but the threat of rising temperatures is not lost on the scientists reaping these ancient rewards. For most artifacts, unless they are painstakingly extracted at precisely the right time, and swiftly placed in conditions that preserve and keep them intact, they will be destroyed and lost forever.

Still, there have been close to 3,000 archaeological finds from 52 different sites in Oppland alone, including a tunic from the Iron Age, a pre-Viking ski, a cache of scaring sticks used for reindeer hunting, and a toy arrow from 600 AD.

A huge portion of these finds concentrate around the Late Antique Early Ice Age, and are composed mostly of hunting equipment, according to National Geographic, likely because as the crops kept failing due to lowering temperatures, the early humans resorted to hunting and scavenging to survive.

Glacial archaeology isn’t exclusive to the Arctic. There’s an ice patch archaeological program in the US too, right in the Rocky Mountains.

Craig M. Lee is an archaeologist with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research

at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Although not as extensive or well-funded as the program in Norway, he says, their research in the Greater Yellowstone area has been responsible for some fascinating finds.

“The ice patches, which are these permanent stable bodies of snow and ice, have … drawn animals into them. People, Native Americans specifically, recognized this association. At least one of the activities we know the people would do at these locations was to hunt these animals,” he said.

Lee explains that equipment and accessories left over from these hunting expeditions consist of the majority of their finds. But there are also things that are not related to hunting. Organic objects like basketry, cordage and certain “objects of unknown function,” as termed in the field, all of which play an important role in our understanding of Native heritage.

The star of the program is a 10,000-year-old atlatl dart found in the Greater Yellowstone area. “The radiocarbon age is 9,250, but that’s the raw radiocarbon. When you calibrate that right, when you account for the variations in the amount of radiocarbon that is produced in the atmosphere, the calendar age is 10,300 years,” said Lee.

Pilø said he believes these archaeological finds are a small silver lining to the issue of global warming. But he acknowledges that as much as global warming is proving a boon to archaeology by opening up the way to new discoveries, it also presents a steady challenge to find and uncover these artifacts before they’re lost for good. “This is a job you cannot do without a deep sense of foreboding,” as he pointed out.

“This will most likely continue until all mountain ice has melted away with all the locked-in warming already in place,” he concluded. Meaning that with it, we stand to lose thousands of years’ worth of human history.

The fact that our glaciers are melting is still bad news. But global warming has also brought us this finite window of remarkable discovery, and the chance to learn more about our own past civilizations—before we went and messed it all up for good.