An Incredible Artifacts From Lost Viking ‘highway’ Revealed by Melting Ice

Paul Pinkerton
 
Knife: A small iron knife with a birchwood handle, found just below the pass area at Lendbreen. Radiocarbon-dated to the 11th Century AD. Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com.
Knife: A small iron knife with a birchwood handle, found just below the pass area at Lendbreen. Radiocarbon-dated to the 11th Century AD. Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com.

The finds tell a remarkable story of high-altitude travel and long distance exchange c. 300 – 1500 AD with a peak in usage c. 1000 AD during the Viking Age.

 

The retreating mountain glaciers of Norway have revealed a host of rare archaeological finds and uncovered a lost mountain pass at Lendbreen in Innlandet County.

A team of archaeologists from Norway and Cambridge have published details of these artefacts today in the journal Antiquity.

Horseshoe: A beautifully preserved horseshoe which melted out of the ice in the lower part of Lendbreen in 2018. The shape dates it to the 11th to the mid-13th Century AD. A small part of the hoof was still attached to the other side of the shoe. Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com.

Horseshoe: A beautifully preserved horseshoe which melted out of the ice in the lower part of Lendbreen in 2018. The shape dates it to the 11th to the mid-13th Century AD. A small part of the hoof was still attached to the other side of the shoe. Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com.

“A lost mountain pass melting out of the ice is a dream discovery for glacial archaeologists,” says Lars Pilø, first author of the study and co-director for the Glacier Archaeology Program.

“In such passes, past travellers left behind lots of artefacts, frozen in time by the ice. These incredibly well-preserved artefacts of organic materials have great historical value.”

Tunic as found: The tunic as it was found, crumpled up and lying in a depression in the scree. Radiocarbon-dated to c. AD 300. Scale is 50 cm. Photo: secretsoftheice.com.

Tunic as found: The tunic as it was found, crumpled up and lying in a depression in the scree. Radiocarbon-dated to c. AD 300. Scale is 50 cm. Photo: secretsoftheice.com.

Some of the hundreds of finds from Lendbreen derive from the actual transport through the pass, such as horseshoes, bones from packhorses, remains of sleds and even a walking stick with a runic inscription.

Other finds are items from daily life – a knife with a preserved wooden handle, a wooden distaff (for holding wool during hand-spinning) and a wooden whisk.

Tinderbox, found on the surface of the ice at Lendbreen during the 2019 fieldwork. Not radiocarbon-dated yet. Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com

Tinderbox, found on the surface of the ice at Lendbreen during the 2019 fieldwork. Not radiocarbon-dated yet. Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com

Remains of clothing, such as a Roman Iron Age tunic, a Viking Age mitten and shoes have also been recovered. Other objects have no parallels in the archaeological record and their function remains unknown.

Locking device: Object believed to be a locking device. Found in the Lendbreen pass area. Made in birchwood. Radiocarbon-dated to c. AD 800. Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com.

Locking device: Object believed to be a locking device. Found in the Lendbreen pass area. Made in birchwood. Radiocarbon-dated to c. AD 800. Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com.

But, the well-preserved finds are only part of the story.

“Sites like the mountain pass at Lendbreen have a larger story to tell beyond the incredible finds,” says corresponding author James H. Barrett of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.

Radiocarbon dates on the artefacts show that traffic through the pass started in the Roman Iron Age around AD 300, peaked in the Viking Age around AD 1000, and declined after this.

Horse dung: Pieces of horse dung found in the pass area at Lendbreen. Radiocarbon-dates of the dung shows that it belongs to the 9th to 14th Century AD. Photo: secretsoftheice.com.

Horse dung: Pieces of horse dung found in the pass area at Lendbreen. Radiocarbon-dates of the dung shows that it belongs to the 9th to 14th Century AD. Photo: secretsoftheice.com.

Barrett continues, “The start around AD 300 was a time when local settlement activity was picking up.

When the use of the pass intensified around AD 1000, during the Viking Age, it was a time of increased mobility, political centralisation and growing trade and urbanisation in Northern Europe.

Instead of just being considered remote regions, mountains could also provide vital access to important products and arteries for transporting such products, linking the mountain regions to larger trading networks.”

“The decline of the Lendbreen pass was probably caused by a combination of economic changes, climate change and late medieval pandemics, including the Black Death,” says Lars Pilø. “When the local area recovered, things had changed, and the Lendbreen pass was lost to memory.”

 

Birch bark container: Small container made of birch bark. Found in the pass area at Lendbreen. Radiocarbon-dated to c. AD 400. Photo: secretsoftheice.com.

Birch bark container: Small container made of birch bark. Found in the pass area at Lendbreen. Radiocarbon-dated to c. AD 400. Photo: secretsoftheice.com.

 

Bit: Wooden bit for goat kids/lambs to prevent them suckling their mother, as the milk was processed for human consumption. Found in the pass area at Lendbreen. Made from juniper. Such bits were used locally until the 1930s, but this specimen is radiocarbon-dated to the 11th century AD. Photo: Espen FInstad, secretsoftheice.com.

Bit: Wooden bit for goat kids/lambs to prevent them suckling their mother, as the milk was processed for human consumption. Found in the pass area at Lendbreen. Made from juniper. Such bits were used locally until the 1930s, but this specimen is radiocarbon-dated to the 11th century AD. Photo: Espen FInstad, secretsoftheice.com.

 

This horseshoe is thought to come from between the 11th – 13th century. PHOTOGRAPH BY ESPEN FINSTAD, SECRETS OF THE ICE

This horseshoe is thought to come from between the 11th – 13th century. PHOTOGRAPH BY ESPEN FINSTAD, SECRETS OF THE ICE

 

This Viking Age mitten Mitten: Mitten, made from different pieces of woven fabric. Found in the pass area at Lendbreen. Radiocarbon-dated to the 9th century AD. Photo: Johan Wildhagen, Palookaville.

This Viking Age mitten Mitten: Mitten, made from different pieces of woven fabric. Found in the pass area at Lendbreen. Radiocarbon-dated to the 9th century AD. Photo: Johan Wildhagen, Palookaville.

 

Distaff: Distaff made from birch, radiocarbon-dated to c. AD 800. From the pass area at Lendbreen. A similar distaff has been found in the Oseberg viking ship burial. Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com.

Distaff: Distaff made from birch, radiocarbon-dated to c. AD 800. From the pass area at Lendbreen. A similar distaff has been found in the Oseberg viking ship burial. Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com.

 

Researchers are intrigued by this horse shoe. PHOTOGRAPH BY ESPEN FINSTAD, SECRETS OF THE ICE

Researchers are intrigued by this horse shoe. PHOTOGRAPH BY ESPEN FINSTAD, SECRETS OF THE ICE

 

Shoe, made from hide. Found in the Lendbreen pass area. The hair is on the outside to provide a better grip on the snow. Radiocarbon-dated to the 10th century AD. Photo: secretsoftheice.com

Shoe, made from hide. Found in the Lendbreen pass area. The hair is on the outside to provide a better grip on the snow. Radiocarbon-dated to the 10th century AD. Photo: secretsoftheice.com

 

An object known locally as “tong” (plier), used in modern times for securing the load on haysleds in the winter. It was the first object found in the depression leading up to the pass. Radiocarbon-dated to the 5th Century AD. Scale is 50 cm. Photo: secretsoftheice.com.

An object known locally as “tong” (plier), used in modern times for securing the load on haysleds in the winter. It was the first object found in the depression leading up to the pass. Radiocarbon-dated to the 5th Century AD. Scale is 50 cm. Photo: secretsoftheice.com.

 

Discovered 25,000-Year-Old Hut Made From Mammoth Bones

The lost mountain pass at Lendbreen was discovered in 2011 and the demanding, high-altitude fieldwork has been ongoing since, following the retreat of the ice.

 
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