A Lost Viking Mountain Pass Has Melted Out of the Ice in Norway

Climate change has exposed the epic ancient route, which was likely abandoned due to the Black Plague, revealing animal skeletons and artifacts.
April 17, 2020, 7:15pm
​A skull and mitten from Lendbreen. Image: Espen Finstand/SecretsOfTheIce.com
A skull and mitten from Lendbreen. Image: Espen Finstand/SecretsOfTheIce.com

Climate change has exposed an ancient Viking mountain route in Norway that is littered with hundreds of archeological artifacts left by travelers over a period of more than 2,000 years.

The high-elevation path is located at Lendbreen on Lomseggen ridge in the Jotunheimen mountains, and was a “focal point” for regional travel with a history that dates back to the Bronze Age, according to a study published on Thursday in the journal Antiquity.

“Artifacts exposed by the melting ice indicate usage from c. AD 300–1500, with a peak in activity c. AD 1000 during the Viking Age—a time of increased mobility, political centralization and growing trade and urbanization in Northern Europe,” according to the study, led by Lars Pilø co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program in Norway.

The route seems to have been more or less abandoned by 1500 AD, possibly due in part to the crippling fallout of the Black Death across Europe.

Lendbreen became a magnet for archaeologists in 2011 when a wool tunic from the 3rd or 4th century was discovered along the pass. Since then, expeditions to the route have recovered approximately 800 artifacts, about 150 bones and antlers, dozens of cairns, and the ruins of a stone shelter.

These abundant remains distinguish Lendbreen from other nearby passes. “Among five mountain passes on Lomseggen known from historical oral accounts and/or archaeology, only Lendbreen has such a shelter and a large number of cairns,” the team said. “It was clearly a route of special significance.”

In addition, Lendbreen is “unique in that it is the first known route up to a pass that crosses an ice patch, and hence provides exceptional preservation conditions for artifacts lost by past travellers,” the researchers noted.

Before the advent of modern transportation over the last two centuries, these mountain passes along the Lomseggen ridge were the quickest way for local populations to travel to nearby communities.

Though the route reaches fairly high altitudes of nearly 2,000 meters, it provides a clear path over the ridge above the treeline. Pilø and his colleagues also think that the ice and snow cover may have provided a firmer footing for pack animals, compared to the exposed summer scree slopes.

For this reason, the route may have experienced its heaviest traffic in spring and early summer when the temperatures were warm enough for travel, but the ice patches were intact enough to help horses and other animals remain steady as they crossed the pass. The discovery of horse-shoes, sleds, skis—preserved for centuries inside the ice—lends weight to this theory.

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A horseshoe from Lendbreen. Image: Espen Finstad/SecretsOfTheIce.com

But just because Lendbreen was relatively busy and easily traversable doesn’t mean it didn’t claim victims from time to time, as many alpine environments do. “The presence of dead horses at Lendbreen parallels the skeletons of dead pack animals found at Alpine and Himalayan mountain passes,” the researchers said.

The team speculated that rags and garments found over the pass may even suggest that some “items of clothing were discarded in dire circumstances, such as the irrational behavior associated with hypothermia.”

Expeditions to the pass will continue in the coming years, as it is important to rescue artifacts in a pristine state soon after they spill out of the receding ice patches. This rush to recover these once ice-bound treasures is happening all around the world, from the Rocky Mountains to Mongolia.

“This archaeological record provides new insights into the nature of high-elevation travel in the past, including the changing material and socio-economic factors that influenced it,” the team concluded. “Far from being barriers or marginal zones, high mountains could also be arteries of intra- and inter-regional communication and exchange.”