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Climate change opens a brief window of discovery for archaeologists

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  October 17, 2013 01:54 PM

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You don’t hear much about positive side effects of climate change, but here’s one: Rising global temperatures have been an unexpected boon to archaeologists, who now find themselves with access to ancient artifacts that had previously been buried beneath sheets of ice.

The September/October issue of Archaeology Magazine features a story, “The Big Melt,” about archaeologists hurrying to collect exposed artifacts on the Lendbreen ice patch in southern Norway. The search is painstaking, but also urgent: Many of the artifacts—especially ones made from fabric and leather—will only last a week once they’ve been released from the ice and exposed to the elements.

Journalist Andrew Curry explains that Lendbreen turned into an archaeological hotspot in 2006, when an unusually warm summer melted enough ice to turn up a 3,400-year-old leather shoe. Since then, archaeologists have found more than 1,600 defrosted artifacts from the period A.D. 300-1200, many of which were left behind in the course of ancient reindeer hunts. These include iron arrowheads, spears, “scare sticks,” which were used to herd reindeer towards hunting blinds, and even a crossbow. Ice is such a reliable preservation tool that in some cases archaeologists think they can tell the direction a hunter was aiming from the way an arrowhead lies on the ground.

These artifacts sit in plain view, but they’re still hard to find in the rocky terrain, and archaeologists know that this window of discovery won’t remain open for long. On the one hand, exposed artifacts are already disintegrating. On the other, warming temperatures have in some regions led to more snow and ice, not less. This means the artifacts could be reburied as quickly as they’ve been exposed, perhaps not to be revealed again for thousands of years.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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