Archaeology of Glaciers and Ice

2022 has arrived and so have students here at Indian University of Pennsylvania as a new spring semester begins! We were welcomed back for the first day of classes with around a foot of snow this Monday the seventeenth. While we may be hoping for these icy, cold mounds of snow to melt away, there are other fields of ice around the world that we wish were not melting as fast as they are. Glaciers in many parts of the world are melting as global temperatures rise. Glaciers and ice patches, while revealing many preserved artifacts as they melt, also produce a host of other challenges when it comes to finding and retrieving these artifacts.

Mouth of the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska.

The constant movement of ice within glaciers tends to crush and damage artifacts and bodies, before dumping them at the mouth of the ice flow. Some researchers say that glaciers rarely preserve objects for more than 500 years. Areas such as non-moving fields of ice attached to glaciers, and even more likely, ice patches (isolated non-moving or very slow-moving accumulations of ice) are turned to as potentially better sources to explore for preserved artifacts.

Ice patches at Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Ice patches reveal more intact artifacts; however, with accessibility also comes exposure to the elements. Ice patches are susceptible to rising temperatures, summer wind and temperatures, winter wind direction and strength, and precipitation. Ice patches change quickly in response to the climate, thus allowing meltwater and wind to cause artifacts to become encapsulated in old ice or displaced from where they were originally lost. With climate change more artifacts are being exposed and objects made from soft organic materials, like hides or textiles, have at most, a year before they are lost to history forever.

Ice mummy of the six-to-eight-month old wooly mammoth baby named Dima in situ near Kirgiljach River in northeast Siberia. Dated to 37,000 B.C.

Glacier archaeologists, doing more hiking than digging, have uncovered a range of incredible historical treasures from ice mummies to Viking trade routes, extinct animal species, thousands of year-old organic artifacts like arrows, throwing spears, skis, and so much more. Researchers around the world are striving to make efforts toward saving artifacts emerging from the ice, including the U.S. National Park Service with their Glacier National Park Ice Patch project, and the well-known Glacier Archaeology Program in Innlandet, Norway, which has recovered over 3,000 artifacts, the oldest finds dating to 6,000 years old. Ground-penetrating radar and ice coring have been used to collect artifact and sediment samples, while predictive models for melting glaciers and ice patches could be good sources suggesting where archaeologists should focus future efforts.

Along with melting glaciers and ice patches, oceanfront erosion and receding coastlines are also prevalent in some parts of the world, causing sites to be washed away while others rot in the ground. As many archaeologists understand, the loss of any part of any culture’s history is not only devastating to them, but to the history and heritage of humanity. Losing the artifacts and bodies kept preserved for so many years in ice is losing knowledge that could contribute to broader understandings of humanity.

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Photos from Wikimedia commons