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Global Warming Aids and Frustrates Archaeologists

From hunting gear to shoes, ancient artifacts once covered by ice are being unearthed in Norway. Now scientists face a race against time to preserve them

by Robin McKie

Norwegian archaeologists Norwegian archaeologists Trond Vihovde, left, and Elling Utvik Wammer use a GPS marker to register the location of sticks used in reindeer hunting from before the Viking Age. Photograph: Alister Doyle/Reuters

Archaeologists have gained an unexpected benefit from global warming. They have discovered melting ice sheets and glaciers are exposing ancient artifacts that had been covered with thick layers of ice for millennia.

The discoveries are providing new insights into the behavior of our ancestors – but they come at a price. So rapid is the rise in global temperatures, and so great is the rate of disintegration of the world's glaciers, that archaeologists risk losing precious relics freed from the icy tombs. Wood rots in a few years once freed from ice while rarer feathers used on arrows, wool or leather, crumble to dust in days unless stored in a freezer. As a result, archaeologists are racing against time to find and save these newly exposed wonders.

A perfect example is provided at Juvfonna in Norway, where reindeer hunting gear used by the Vikings' ancestors has been found littering the ground as the front edge of Juvfonna's ice sheet has retreated. A section more than 60ft wide has disappeared over the course of 12 months, exposing several hundred artifacts. "It's like a time machine... the ice has not been this small for many, many centuries," says Lars Piloe, the Dane heading a team of "snow patch archaeologists".

Bows and arrows, specialized hunting sticks – used to drive reindeer towards archers – and even a 3,400-year-old leather shoe have been found at the site in the Jotunheimen mountains, home of the "ice giants" of Norse mythology. These finds have been logged with a GPS satellite marker before being taken for examination. From these measurements, archaeologists reckon people using hunting sticks – each about a meter long with a flapping piece of wood attached by connecting thread – were set up about two meters apart. They then drove reindeer toward hunters who needed to get within 60ft of an animal to have a chance of hitting one with an iron-tipped arrow.

Such a hunt would require 15 to 20 people, Piloe adds, indicating that Norway had an organized society around the start of the dark ages, 1,500 years ago. "Our main focus is the rescue part," according to Piloe. "There are many ice patches. We can only cover a few. We know we are losing artifacts everywhere."

Similar discoveries have been made in glaciers or in permafrost from Alaska to Siberia. Italy's iceman "Ötzi", killed by an arrow wound approximately 5,000 years ago, was found in an Alpine glacier, for example.

Patrick Hunt, of Stanford University in California, who is trying to find where Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy in 218BC with an army and elephants, says there is now an alarming rate of thaw in the Alps: "This is the first summer since 1994 when we began our field excavations above 8,000ft that we have not been inundated by even one day of rain, sleet and snow flurries. I expect we will see more ice patch archaeology discoveries."

Just how many others will be lost to science is difficult to assess, however.

This post originally appeared on The Guardian.

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Hey great article. I'm a little bit interested to know what happen to the newly exposed wonders. Where would one request more information about the matters?. Thanks a lot.
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Posted by: Steven on 29 Sep 10

"It's like a time machine... the ice has not been this small for many, many centuries,"

Oops I don't think he meant to say that. If the glaciers were smaller in the past, it might imply that they grew larger without human influence. I will ignore his comment then and continue believing that human activity is responsible for everything. la la la..

Posted by: klem on 29 Sep 10

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