(Courtesy of Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Arnold O. Beckman High School

Melting history beneath the ice

Besides the rising sea levels and animal extinctions, climate change brought the melting of thousand-year-old glaciers and with it a new archaeological discipline—Glacial archaeology. Due to the melting of mountain ice brought by global warming, archaeologists have a short time window each year to conduct fieldwork and search for pieces of human history emerging from the ice before they disappear.

Glacial archaeology is a race against time. As more glacial ice melts, the surrounding, atmospheric temperature rises, decreasing the chances of preserving the artifact. If these artifacts are not extracted at precisely the right time or had not yet been discovered by the time all the mountain ice has melted, they will be destroyed and lost forever. So, while archaeologists dig out progressively older and more valuable specimens, the chances of preserving them are getting slimmer.

As climate change rages on, 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.

Through extracted artifacts, we can learn more about life during the Ice Age. National Geographic reported a huge portion of finds consisting of hunting equipment. So it can be inferred that early humans resorted to hunting and gathering to survive as crops likely failed in lowering temperatures.

“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 people would do at these locations was to hunt these animals,” archaeologist Craig M. Lee told Quartz.

Lee explains that though equipment and accessories left over from these hunting expeditions consist of the majority of their finds, there are things found that are unrelated to hunting such as basketry, cordage and certain “objects of unknown function.” All of which play an important role in our understanding of Native heritage.

One of the oldest artifacts recovered was 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,” Lee said.

Despite ongoing climate change casting a dark background to glacial archaeology, this new discipline has brought us a finite window of discovery and the chance to learn about our past civilizations. This is Mother Nature’s last gifts to mankind, given in hopes we can appreciate our pasts and restore her condition before it’s too late.