With crampons strapped to their feet and ice axes in hand, a team of glacier archaeologists slowly excavated melting glaciers in Norway’s Innlandet county. The project began in 2006, when “the first big melt hit our mountains”, explains the Secrets of the Ice team. Curious to find out what might be hiding beneath the layers of permafrost and ice, archaeologists have since uncovered arrows, hunting blinds and other ancient treasures from before the Viking Age.
In February, the team confirmed some of their findings on Facebook. During their last expedition to the top of the inner mountain known as Sandgrovskaret, archaeologists discovered arrows, creepy sticks (more on those later) and stone structures that were used as hunting caches by bowhunters centuries, and in some cases millennia, ago .
“When the reindeer came closer than 10-20 meters [33 to 66 feet]the hunter would get up and start shooting arrows,” Lars Pilø, co-director of the glacier archeology program and editor of the Secrets of the Ice website, told Live Science.
Pilø and his team first discovered the archaeological site in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2018 that they were able to return to carry out a “big systematic survey”. As part of the investigation, the team mapped 40 different hunting caches at the Sandgrovskardet site alone. Working in the glacial terrain is tricky and requires skill as well as speed.
“Time is limited and we have to do the work and get off the mountain before dark,” writes Pilø on the Secrets of the Ice website. “If it’s a small site with only a handful of finds, we’ll document and collect them.” Otherwise, they “retrieve fragile finds that don’t seem to be able to survive until the next visit”.
There are still around 151 potential glacial archaeological sites that the team plans to explore. In Innlandet County alone, the team identified 65 sites spread across Jotunheimen, Dovrefjell and Breheimen.
“We have an August window of opportunity until the snow falls, where more objects could surface and we can go save them. So every year we have to plan and prioritize,” archaeologist Espen Finstad told ScienceNorway.no.
When the team returned to the Sandgrovskaret site in 2018, it touched down. They found five arrows, and three of them still had the “iron arrowhead preserved”.[s].” These are “probably to date between AD 300 and 600”, according to Pilø, who added that each “is a rare type not found on ice”. [or] neither in lowland tombs.
As for the other two arrowheads? Pilø believes they are even older and may date back to the first millennium BCE. The other finds provided clues as to how successfully these early mountaineers were able to hunt. The stone blinds – which are essentially rock faces arranged in a semicircle – were built far from the nearest settlement, between 5,500 and 6,500 feet above sea level. This led the researchers to believe that the hunters had intentionally decided to hunt where the animals were.
“They most likely lived in the valleys, but clearly had large hunting posts higher up in the mountains,” Finstad said. “In the Stone Age they would have lived in simple settlements, and during the Iron Age they would have had large longhouses in the valley.”
The settlements where Finstad believes the bowhunters lived were discovered by the team about a year ago, and these date back to the Viking Age and early medieval period.
In addition to the arrows and hunting blinds, archaeologists have discovered other vestiges of the big game hunts of yesteryear: 32 scaring sticks. Some were still “lying in line, indicating where a type of psychological reindeer fence once was,” according to a post on the Secrets of the Ice Facebook page. Researchers have found thousands of similar sticks at other ice sites in Oppland County. A scaring stick is a wooden stick about three feet long with a flag or other lightweight object attached to the top. These were used to direct game towards the stone blind where the hunters waited.
Read more: 460-year-old hunting bow discovered underwater in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park
“The key point here is that reindeer are very sensitive animals and tend to shy away from human figures or moving objects,” Pilø writes. “The ancient hunters knew this and they used their intimate knowledge of the natural behavior of reindeer to lead the animals to good hunting spots by means of standing stones or rows of scary sticks.”