Illustrations: Pete Ryan

The Rescue Mission to Save Civilization From the Big Melt

Ice patch archeologists are racing against the clock to find ancient artifacts dislodged by climate change

Chris Baraniuk
Published in
10 min readOct 14, 2019

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ItIt is like looking at something from another planet. The mystery tools are both about five inches long, bleached a pale gray with age and the effects of the weather. They were found just over a month ago, lying on icy ground high in the mountains of Norway. For roughly a thousand years they lay trapped in layers of ice. But now they have melted out.

“We have no idea what they are,” says Julian Robert Post-Melbye, a member of the archaeological team that found the objects and an archaeologist at the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History. Did they once help fix horse-riding equipment in place? Maybe they were used to shape a specific substance or material. “We just call them ‘wrenches’” Post-Melbye says, “because they look, you know, like wrenches.”

I have come here, to the mountain village of Fossbergom in central Norway, to see these and other objects recently dislodged from the ice. Fossbergom is located in Lom, a municipality with fewer than 2,500 residents, surrounded by three huge national parks crammed with mountains, valleys, and ice. The ice, however, is melting at a quickening rate, and over the past two decades archaeologists have found that more artifacts are appearing — so many they can hardly keep up.

These objects are the fruits of a field known as “glacial archeology” or “ice patch archaeology.” As the world has warmed, melting ice in mountain regions of Norway, Mongolia, and other sub-Arctic nations, as well as Alaska, the Alps, the Rocky Mountains, and the Canadian Yukon, has yielded a growing bounty of exceptionally well-preserved items left behind by Viking hunters, ancient warriors, and long-forgotten travelers — scattered fragments that reveal the technological prowess of departed civilizations.

The ice is melting at a quickening rate, and over the past two decades archaeologists have found that more artifacts are appearing — so many they can hardly keep up.

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Chris Baraniuk
GEN
Writer for

Freelance science and technology journalist. Based in Northern Ireland.