‘Heritage emergency’: Melting glaciers cause race against time for archaeologists

As more ancient objects pop up than ever before, "we can't just put an archaeologist at every glacier"

Putting an archaeologist at every glacier is not an option. Image: All parts CC

As glaciers across the globe melt at an accelerated pace, forgotten objects – from ice mummies to Viking arrows and even airplanes – are popping up. To recover these traces from the past, archaeologists are in a race against time – or more specifically before the thaw sets in. “We are dealing with a heritage emergency.”

What’s the problem? Romain Andenmatten of the Archaeological Service of the Swiss canton of Valais, explains: “Objects that lay frozen in the ice for thousands of years are now emerging at an accelerated pace due to climate change”, he told Belgian newspaper De Morgen. He has his work cut out for him, as Valais is home to some of the highest peaks and largest glaciers in the Alps.

But wouldn’t the surfacing of artefacts make an archaeologist’s job easier? Well, yes and no. Objects now surface more often, instead of archaeologists having to dig in a specific place. However, material that has been frozen in glacial ice for centuries can decay in a short time once it thaws, Andenmatten explains. Organic material in particular – textiles and wood, but also material remains – is sensitive to sudden temperature changes. “However, those are things that are rare in excavations”, he says.

His colleague Marcel Cornelissen, a Dutchman working in the Swiss canton of Uri, mentions a case to De Morgen, when a skier found two small pieces of wood and two antlers – one from a deer, one from a stag. “But before we even could investigate further, the deer antlers had already decayed”, he said.

So no luck? On the contrary! The other antler and the two pieces of wood which didn’t decay lead to a spectacular discovery. “Our mouths fell wide open”, Cornelissen told De Morgen. The material turned out to be eight thousand years old – almost three thousand years older than the famous ice mummy Ötzi. After investigating the area, they even found a mid-Stone Age rock crystal workshop – unique to the Alps region.

A researcher holding a prehistoric ski found in Norway, 2014. Image: Aud Hole/Oppland County Council via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Recent objects that resurfaced were found in:

  • Jotunheimen (Norway) where archaeologists recovered, among other things, a three-bladed iron arrowhead from the Viking Age. “The last person to touch this arrowhead was a Viking”, the team wrote on weblog secrestsoftheice.com
  • Northern Italy and the Austrian Alps, where sharp shells from World War I and rusty ammunition belts pop up every now and then. In 2014 researchers even found a 100-year-old love letter from an Austrian soldier.
  • Konkordiaplatz (Switzerland), a mountain guide found the remains of a small plane that crashed in 1968, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported.

But these are just a few lucky finds: archaeologists in the high mountains often depend on chance and reports from passers-by, like the wood pieces and antlers in Uri, or glacier mummy Ötzi. But as glaciers are melting at a higher speed, more objects are at risk of being lost forever.

Modern problems require modern solutions

“We felt we needed more eyes in the mountains. Fragile material emerges now and we cannot put an archaeologist at every glacier”, says Andenmatten.

So the archaeological service in Valais developed an app last year: IceWatcher. If you encounter something interesting on your hike through the Alps, you can send photos and GPS coordinates directly to their office. And with success: the app received 30 reports from six separate sites, compared to six reports through regular channels.

“At the same time, such an app also leads to awareness”, Andenmatten reckons. “People think better about what they might encounter along the way, and if they find something, they handle it better. In the past, it was common for passers-by to touch, move or even take objects.”

The big picture

While collecting objects uncovered from melting glaciers might give archaeologists new information, paying attention to the broader historical and geographical context remains crucial. “Objects you find and the location where you find them already say something about historical trade routes, for example”, Andenmatten says. Putting them together helps researchers construct a bigger historical picture.