Meltdown: Archaeologists Find Ancient History in Ice and Snow

By: Mary Stapleton, Cultural Liaison, Arctic Institute of North America, University of Calgary

The Arctic—the perpetually snow-capped mountain tops, the eternally flowing glaciers—might seem to attract poets and artists rather than scientific archaeological specialists. The indigenous people of northern countries, who have lived in these environments for millennia, have always believed that ice in many forms carried spirits and secrets. A creative sub-specialty of archaeology, glacial archaeology, has become the key to opening this ancient fragile treasury to begin to tell the story of ancient peoples and their innate relationships to the earth. Imagine the spine-chilling realization that as atmospheric temperatures rise, the most eternal yet ephemeral of matter—ice—inevitably thins and disappears. Thus treasures are revealed that shed light on flora, fauna, cultural practices, and the interaction of human beings and their environments back to the dawn of history. No written word could be so compelling as the experience of seeing, touching, examining, and reflecting on the significance of the tangible objects found in disappearing snow, ice, and permafrost.

At high latitudes and altitudes, formerly permanent ice is melting: climate change is immutably taking place. Ice patches are located in areas where ice is perennially frozen and relatively static, thus preserving even the most fragile components of artifacts. Ice Patch or Glacial Archaeology is dedicated to research on the human and environmental landscapes where melting occurs. Artifacts and biological specimens, preserved by freezing temperatures, are appearing at sites as diverse as Paleo-Eskimo middens in Greenland, burials in the Altai Mountains of Russia, mummies of the Andes, in the Himalayas, and in reindeer and caribou hunting sites in Norway, Canada, and Alaska. Stratified layers of ice-preserved evidence of hunters, animals, and weapons are emerging, evidence of activities dating back thousands of years. These sites can be studied through radio carbon dating, DNA analysis, and other advanced technologies. There is the potential to link similar cultural heritage around the world, despite distance and time.

Why are these ancient artifacts found high on mountains preserved in ice? Arctic and alpine glaciers and ice have always been used for travel, communication, trade, and hunting by many peoples. In northern environments, game—caribou, reindeer, and ground squirrels—seek shelter in summer from heat and insects at high altitudes where snow remains. Local hunters followed their prey. To date, many items of wood, antler, stone, and bone; fauna from mammals and birds; caribou remains and dung; textiles, shoes, and even a sledge have been recovered and analyzed in Canada, Alaska, and Norway.

 A herd of caribou crosses an ice patch. Photo courtesy of the Government of Yukon, Canada. A herd of caribou crosses an ice patch. Photo courtesy of the Government of Yukon, Canada.

Frozen remains bring immediacy to the past. In 1999, the body of a young indigenous man was found frozen inside a glacier in the traditional territory of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations in Yukon Territory, Canada. He was named Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi, translated as "long-ago person found." He wore a robe made from gopher or squirrel skins stitched together with sinew, and carried a walking stick, an iron-blade knife, and a spear thrower. Radiocarbon analysis placed the age of the body at between 300 and 550 years. DNA testing connected Kwaday to at least 17 people living in the region, an exciting reaffirmation of their deep connection with their land and community. The find, while not as old, was comparable in condition and value to Ötzi the Iceman, found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991 and dated at 3,000 years old.

Traditional knowledge is essential to interpret the evidence found in ice and snow. Combining indigenous perspectives with archaeological methods has already benefited expansion of ecological and ethnographic environmental understanding. As the descendants of ancient hunters, local indigenous peoples feel a profound connection to such sites. The process of information gathering, monitoring, and dissemination builds on the knowledge, perspectives, and values of many cultures. Cultural strengthening and capacity building are important outcomes of the research.

How will scientists, indigenous peoples, and the wider community of interest ensure that the resources are not lost? Raising awareness is a critical first step. Cultural Heritage Management (CHM) of frozen sites presents special challenges. Sites must be found, assessed, and inventoried. Remote and high altitude locations present expensive field logistics, including the transportation of delicate finds. Outreach and dissemination activities require the support not only of archaeologists but also heritage specialists, government, philanthropists, and the public.

"The mountains have a lot of history protected in ice patches which are diminishing but are not lost," says Martin Callanan in Managing Frozen Heritage: Some Challenges and Responses. "Our generation understands that change is occurring, and it is our job to learn from it" (M. Callanan, personal communication, 2016). This heritage cannot be "saved" or preserved; it must be explored and interpreted as melting continues. Sites degrade and disappear, along with their contents. This unique opportunity must receive attention and funding while there is still time.

For more information about this article, contact Mary Stapleton via email (mary [at] stapleton.ca), by phone (+1-403-931-2453), or cell phone (+1-403-860-4182).

Further information about archaeological discoveries from glacial, permafrost, polar, and high‐altitude frozen contexts across the world, and the latest discoveries and research from frozen sites, is available from the Journal of Glacial Archaeology.

Several international symposia, entitled "Frozen Pasts," have been held in various locations in recent years. These conferences have productively brought together researchers who are studying the history and cultures revealed by melting ice and snow. The next symposium will be held in Innsbruck, Austria, on 12-16 October 2016.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to acknowledge the following experts for helpful interviews (recognizing their outstanding contributions to the field of Glacial/Ice Patch Archaeology) carried out while preparing this article: Tom Andrews, Territorial Archaeologist, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Canada; Martin Callanan, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, working on the Snow Patch Archaeological Research Cooperation (SPARC) project at the NTNU-University Museum in Trondheim, alpine snow patches in Southern Sami areas, Managing Editor of the Journal of Glacial Archaeology, and coordinator for the international Frozen Pasts conferences; Jim Dixon, Professor of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, United States; and Greg Hare, Site Assessment Archaeologist, Yukon Government Department of Tourism and Culture, Canada.