Fire and Ice

By Geoff Towers
Home > Articles > Fire and Ice

High on the flank of Norway’s largest peak, the Galdhoepiggen, 8000 feet, home to the legends of the old Norse gods, a small party of archaeologists work quietly and quickly, the season is short and there is much to be done.


Emerging within archaeology at this time is a discipline, which has a limited time scale attached to it. The reason being that it deals with ancient artifacts, mainly hunting, found in what were permanently frozen snow fields, up in the Jotunheimen Mountains, called ice patches.

Jufvonna-Norway’s summer months can be hot and the habit of the reindeer was to climb up to the Juvfonna to escape the heat and the biting insects found in the lower pastures. Up around 6000 feet, snow fields provided cooling relief from the parasites and enough food to wait out the hot weather. Hunters following the herds noticed that the reindeer were in fact bedding on islands of ice and snow and with cunning, advantage could be taken. Placing flapping sticks on one end of the snow field about a yard apart, had the effect of driving the acutely sensitive animals toward the hunters hiding behind blinds, with predictable results, providing you shot well.

If the hunter missed the mark his arrow spear or dart went into the snow and any trace lost by either being swallowed up by the snow or trampled by the stampeding herd. Over the millennia, these and other artifacts were covered by succeeding layers of snowfall and became fixed as if in a time capsule. An analogy would be as if you lost your chariot keys 1700 years ago and archaeologists found them again in the summer of this year when the ice field started to melt, they would be almost as pristine as the day you lost them.

Dr Lars Pilo and his small team are racing against time to gather as many artifacts as possible before the ice fields melt and retreat to the extent that many bows, arrows, tools and maybe that great find, as yet undiscovered, will be lost. Exposure to the air of today plays havoc with the delicate parts of the finds, bindings, fletches, wool and leather last only days if not replaced in refrigeration, they become lost forever. A bow made from hazel, (interesting) arrows of birch and pine (which need more research) whose spine is as yet undetermined. Iron and bone arrow heads, smelted and carved on the farmsteads in the valleys below. The hunters when they shot the deer frequently used both permanent buildings and tent encampments, evidence of which have been found high up on the Juvfonna which confirms pro active co- operation between farmsteads and perhaps larger conurbations. Dr Lars Pilo’s view is that probably between 15 to 20 people were involved in the hunts at any one time.


Up to now the season’s results have found over 600 remains in 22 of 40 ice patches so far investigated and the team continue their efforts to rescue what still lies under the ice, only 100 to go. Next season (2011) he hopes to add a further group to his own and in so doing rescue more of what lies beneath.

We at Archer’s Review are very grateful to our Norwegian Friends for contacting us, taking the time to answer our questions, sending pictures of the finds and a short video of the Juvfonna. We look forward to next year’s investigations and will, of course keep you informed of any research that is released to us…


We had a few questions to put to Lars Pilo and kindly he took the time to tell us a little about the project.

Q;  Were they migratory, or did the people live in the valley below.
They probably lived in the valleys, mostly as farmers, but there are some hunters graves in the mountains as well

Q;  Why were so many artefacts left lying around.
Arrows were probably shot into the snow when the hunters missed their target (and see below)

Q;  Were hunters overcome by a blizzard. A late hunt, last food for winter.
May have happened, but we have no evidence for that. Modern corpses are known from glaciers, but generally corpses don’t preserve well in ice patches/glaciers (Ötzi being one exception!)

Q;  The leather shoe has been dated at 3,400 yrs, it seems the majority of the finds are up to 1000 years old, how has the shoe become mixed up with the later artefacts.
The artefacts are found in ice patches (none-moving ice masses) which accumulate over time. When they melt the outer younger layers melt first, and the finds get progressively older as the ice melts. However, sometimes older ice melts at an earlier stage (it’s a little complicated, has to do with the angle/slope of the ice), producing older finds together with more recent ones,

Q;  Has the glacier receded before
Again, these are not glaciers, but non-moving ice masses. Glaciers move and contain little old ice and thus no artefacts from prehistoric times. About 6000 years ago there was no ice in the Jotunheimen mountains due to the Holocene Climate Optimum. Ice started accumulating from then, but has been melting again in some periods. Very heavy melting has been happening in the last ten years (this is where our findings get mixed up in the climate change debate, but let us not get into that here ) .

Q;  Are there any bows/ bowstrings, if so what manufacture.
No bow strings. One bow, of hazel.

Q;  What wood used for arrows. Spine, etc.
Birch and pine, but needs to looked further into.

Q;  What metals used in arrow heads etc.
Iron. Sometimes bone.

Q;  Any hunters campsites found on the mountain.
Yes, they are quite numerous, including both buildings and tent sites.

Q;  Why didn’t the hunters re-gather the flapping sticks. Q3?
They were probably of little value, and left on the sites, sometimes as a fixed installation for use on the next hunt. They would then be buried by snow

Q'  Apart from shoe, are all finds dated to around 300 AD.
So far, but as we date more finds and older ice melts we expect do get older dates. Hunting implements found in ice patches in North America date back to 10000 BP – but that of course is atlatl-technology at this early date.

Q;  How much more do you expect to find.
Hard to say. Some ice patches yield > 500 artefacts, some only one or two. 22 ice patches with finds so far of 40 surveyed. Still about 100 to check out…

Q;  How much time have you got left before the glacier recedes and starts to uncover the, as yet undiscovered artefacts and so potentially lose them
Depends on the material. The time window for collecting leather objects and feathers after they melt out of the ice is probably < 1 week, while wood may preserve up to 10 years (but the preservation get worse every time they are exposed)

Q; When does your season begin and end.
August-September, between snow melt and new winter snow. Normally about four weeks, depending on snow conditions. Also fieldwork may be interrupted due to snow fall during the field season

Q;  Do you have a team working on the mountain if so how many.
This year we had one time of three persons. Next year we hope to bring two teams into the mountains.

Steve and Andy

Steve Nicholson and Andy Gilfrin, are real archers interested in the best archery suppliers have to offer. In our search for the very best bow, arrows and equipment we have shot, used and worn pretty much everything on offer.

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