Long-forgotten Viking mountain pass found in Norway following glacier melt

Due to global warming, high-elevation ice patches and glaciers have recently yielded a myriad of historical finds for archaeologists to discover.

General view over valley in mountains of south Norway from beside Lendbreen glacier is seen in this undated handout picture (photo credit: REUTERS)
General view over valley in mountains of south Norway from beside Lendbreen glacier is seen in this undated handout picture
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Archaeologists have uncovered a heavily traversed glacial mountain pass in Lendbreen, Norway, utilized by travelers throughout the Viking Age, and littered with hundreds of artifacts presumed to have been used by the Vikings during that time period, according to a new study published by the Cambridge University Press on Wednesday.
Due to the warming global climate, high-elevation ice patches and glaciers have recently yielded a myriad of historical finds for archaeologists to happen upon as they finally gain access to these areas after the layers of ice once covering them have gradually melted away over time – and much faster recently.
The survey of the area surrounding the glacial highway located on the Lendbreen ice patch uncovered over 800 artifacts, 150 sets of bones and antlers, over 100 cairns (man-made stone piles) and even the foundation of a shelter made of stone. The study authors add that the Lendbreen glacial crossing was a "focal point" for regional travel starting from the Iron Age (1-400 CE) up until the end of the Middle Ages (1050-1537 CE).
This is also the first such pass discovered in Northern Europe and particularly in Scandinavia; many others are currently being researched in North America. These passes "played key roles in [determining methods of] past mobility, facilitating and channeling transhumance, intra-regional travel and long-distance journeys," according to the authors. Transhumance is the seasonal moving of livestock from one grazing ground to another, usually to lowlands in the winter and back to highlands in the summer.
The cairns were reportedly used as navigation points, sort of like trail markers, for non-local travelers unfamiliar with the terrain – navigators coming from far and wide, not just the local constituency. The antlers and pelts represented trade outside of the area as these items are not found naturally within the mountain pass.
"Artifacts exposed by the melting ice indicate usage from CE 300-1500, with a peak in activity [from] CE 1000 during the Viking Age – a time of increased mobility, political centralization and growing trade and urbanization in Northern Europe," the study authors said. "The site's exceptionally rich archaeological material illustrates a long-lived transhumance system in seasonally changing mountain terrain, and provides a model pertinent to the study of mountain passes globally."
Historically, indigenous settlers of Norway used snow-covered glaciers as a common means of travel - mainly during the spring and summer months.
Part of the Lomseggen Ridge, the Lendbreen mountain pass is 700 meters long and located atop a glacier, which at its highest point is settled approximately 1,900 meters above sea level. The ice patch had hundred of artifacts – such as knives, mittens, sleds, ice pegs, shoes and even snowshoes fit for a horse – lying on the bare ground in plain sight once the ice covering on the pass had melted to the point where the original path was cleared.
“Global warming is leading to the melting of mountain ice worldwide, and the finds melting out of the ice are a result of this,” Lars Pilø, on of the authors of the study and a co-director of Norway’s Glacier Archaeology Program, told Gizmodo. “Trying to save the remains of a melting world is a very exciting job—the finds are just an archaeologist’s dream—but at the same time, it is also a job you cannot do without a deep sense of foreboding.”
“These finds tell us a rich history of the local farming community of which there are otherwise only meager sources,” said Pilø.
The pass was abandoned and left unused by 1500 CE, cited possibly due to the pandemic spread of the Black Plague and the fears surrounding the spread of the virus in Europe, however, this can not be proven fact and other causes such as climate change and shifts in trading routes could also be a factor for its abandonment.
“The decline starts before the [Black Death] pandemic, but we don’t have a good explanation for that,” Pilø said.