Fittingly, archaeologists who explore landscapes exposed by glacial melt are known as glacial archaeologists. In 2018, a team of these specialized experts were dispatched to the ice-covered mountains of Norway, to seek treasures revealed by the retreat of the glaciers in that frozen northern land. These explorations, which focused on the area around a remote 6,000 foot- (1800 meter-) peak known as Sandgrovskaret, were spectacularly successful. The archaeologists discovered ample quantities of artifacts and ruins left behind by cultures that hunted mountain reindeer in the distant past. They also uncovered the imprint of a long-hidden and forgotten mountain trail, which showed how ancient hunters and their social groups managed to reach this remote mountainside location.
Sandgrovskaret can be found in the rocky inland Norwegian county of Innlandet, where the glacial cover of the various mountain ranges is now in full retreat. Norway has lost about 14 percent of its glaciers in just the last six years after years of slower and steadier decline. This is worrisome from a climate change perspective but advantageous for glacial archaeologists who specialize in the recovery of long-lost treasures .
The Secrets of the Ice Revealed
The archaeologists involved in the explorations at Sandgrovskaret are affiliated with the ongoing Secrets of the Ice project, one of the largest and most organized archaeological programs in Norwegian history.
The goal of this project, which has already been active for several years, is to explore the high mountain country and ice sheets of the Innlandet region of Norway in their entirety, in search of signs of past human activity that were previously under glacial cover. This would include remnants left behind by hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists who lived in the Innlandet region during the Stone Age (before 3,200 years ago), Bronze Age (3200 to 500 BC), Iron Age (500 BC to nearly 800 AD), the Viking Age (approximately 793 to 1066), and the post-Viking medieval period.
Secrets of the Ice team members have found dozens of productive archaeological sites so far. Sandgrovskaret has been one of the most fertile, as the teams new release of information from the 2018 expedition has so definitively revealed.
This iron arrowhead is of a well-known type from Iron Age burials in the lowlands. It has a flat tang and a long blade, and dates to AD 300-600. The photo also shows the broken remains of the wooden shaft. (Photo: Espen Finstad/ Secrets of the Ice )
Finding the Tools of Reindeer Hunting at Sandgrovskaret
The mountains and ice patches of Sandgrovskaret offered no cover or shelter for hunters. To solve this problem, ancient hunters constructed hunting blinds made out of stone. These rock wall structures were semi-circular in design and of modest height, designed to keep hunters hidden from the prey they were secretly stalking.
During their 2018 explorations, the archaeologists found the remains of approximately 40 stone hunting blinds. These blinds could have been constructed at any time in the past, from a few centuries ago to several thousand years ago. Residential structures were not found nearby, showing that these blinds were used by people who lived elsewhere.
One of forty hunting blinds Secrets of the Ice have mapped at Sandgrovskardet. ( Secrets of the Ice )
“Most likely they lived down in the valleys,” Secrets of the Ice project archaeologist Espen Finstad told the publication Science Norway. “In the Stone Age, they would have lived in simple settlements, and during the Iron Age they would have had grand long-houses down in the valley.”
In addition to the ruins of the hunting blinds the archaeologists also recovered various artifacts. Some of the most notable included 32 “scaring sticks,” objects that were used to direct the movements of reindeer herds.
One of the more ingenious hunting aids developed by the hunter-gather peoples of ancient Norway, these sticks were generally about three feet or one meter long. Each featured a thin wooden flag attached to one end, which would flap in the mountain winds when the sticks were lain on the ground. The sticks would be placed in groups in this flag-op position, making noises that would scare reindeer herds enough to get them running in the opposite direction.
“Depending on weather and wind and where the reindeer are found, you would calculate how best to make them move toward the hunting blinds, and place lines of these sticks along the ice,” Finstad explained. “It was a way of manipulating the animals to walk in the direction where you were waiting for them with your bow and arrow.”
Scaring sticks are common at Innlandet sites. Over 1,000 have now been collected by glacial archaeologists exploring the region.
A cache of 1000-year-old scaring sticks found at the edge of an ice patch on the Lomseggen ridge. (Espen Finstad, Oppland County Council / Secrets of the Ice )
Even more remnants of past hunting activity were found, in the form of five ancient arrows.
Three of the five still had their iron arrowheads attached. One of the arrowheads was of an exceedingly rare type, having been matched only by a similar arrowhead found inside an Innlandet county burial that was dated to approximately 550 AD. The other two arrowheads were of a more common type, similar to those found at several Iron Age sites in the area.
The two arrows that lacked heads were judged to be from an earlier period, dating perhaps as far back as 800 BC. These arrows were unusually long, measuring nearly three feet (one meter) from tip to tip.
While these were the only arrows retrieved during the 2018 Sandgrovskaret expedition, the Norwegian archaeologists did find 68 other arrows at another glacial site during a separate venture. This large assortment dated from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, spanning thousands of years of hunting activity.
A one thousand year old arrow found in the Jotunheimen mountains in 2014. It is relatively well preserved, but the lack of fletching and sinew shows that it has been out of the ice before. (Oppland County Council/ Secrets of the Ice )
If local legend is to be believed, this trail the Secrets of the Ice team were exploring was still in use as late as the 19th century. The archaeologists know this trail was actually created long ago, but just how many centuries it dates back cannot be determined at this time.
The path of the trail is marked by a series of cairns, or small man-made piles of stones. Although there is no way to tell who put them there, it is clear they have been there for quite some time.
During an earlier expedition (2016), the Norwegian archaeologists found a totally lost mountain trail running across a peak called Lendbreen, which is in the Jotunheimen Mountains. They recovered approximately 800 artifacts while performing excavations up and down its length, mostly including items from the Iron Age and the slightly later Age of the Vikings. This fantastic cache of ancient objects included the remains of sleds, clothing, household items, and much, much more. Animal bones were also recovered, and radiocarbon dating of these organic remains showed the trail was most heavily used approximately 1,000 years ago.
Hitting the Archaeological Jackpot at Innlandet
With the loss of glacial ice in Norway accelerating, the Secrets of the Ice project will likely be busy for some time to come. The project has already identified 65 sites in Innlandet, spread out over several separate mountain ranges that span the entire county.
Melting glaciers have revealed artifacts in other areas of Norway as well. But nothing matches the bounty recovered by the Secrets of the Ice team members, who have discovered artifacts and ruins dating from the Stone Age up through the 14th century.
“These are the highest mountains in Norway with several thousand years old ice, be they glaciers or ice patches,” Finstad noted, as he sought to explain his team’s amazing record. “There have been plenty of reindeer here throughout the centuries, and short distances between the mountains and valleys where people have lived. So both the conditions for preservation as well as the cultural history setting in this area means that there has been a lot of activity here, and that things have been left behind and preserved.”
Top image: A rare iron arrowhead dating to AD 300-600 was found at Sandgrovskaret in 2018. Source: Espen Finstad/ Secrets of the Ice
By Nathan Falde