A ski from the Viking Age melted out of the ice in 2014. A few years later the second ski in the pair appeared
The skis are the best-preserved pair from prehistoric times in the world. But who was trying to cross a mountain pass during winter in the 8th century, and why did they lose their skis? More clues may yet melt out of the ice to tell the story.
Archaeologists in the Secrets of the Ice project work to secure objects that melt out of glaciers and ice patches in Innlandet County, north of Oslo. The county contains a number of Norway’s highest peaks with glaciers and permanent snow patches.
In 2014, the researchers made an incredible discovery. A 1.300-year-old, well-preserved ski melted out of the ice. Even large parts of the binding was intact.
The ski was found in a snow patch in the mountains in Reinheimen National Park, on Digervarden mountain.
The person who last wore these skis lived in the second half of the 8th century, during the run-up to the Viking Age.
Julian Robert Post-Melbye is an archaeologist at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo. He remembers the day they found the ski in 2014.
“I thought: ‘How can this be? Is it possible to find such a well-preserved, complete ski?’”
Not only was this possible - in 2021, amazingly enough, the other half of the ski pair appeared.
The skis were reunited last year
After 2014, the archaeologists continued to return to the snowbank where the Viking Age ski was found.
“Last year our colleague stopped by at the end of the season, just before the snow was due to arrive,” Post-Melbye said. “At that point, a ski tip stuck out of the ice, very close to the place where we had found the first ski.”
The archaeologists returned a few days later with the equipment they needed to salvage the ski.
“Half of the ski was stuck in the ice, and we tried to get it out carefully without damaging it. It was pretty exciting but nerve-wracking,” he said.
The ski was freed, and it became clear that it was in exceptionally good condition, even after hundreds of years. The bindings were still preserved, and were in even better condition than the bindings of the previous ski.
The ski was the same age and almost identical to the ski found in 2014. They were found only five meters apart. The archaeologists thus concluded that they most likely belonged together.
Crossing a mountain pass during winter
Who was the man or woman who lost their skis on a winter's day in the 8th century?
It's not easy to say. The researchers continue to monitor the snowpack in the hopes that perhaps other clues will emerge that explain a little more about what happened.
Post-Melbye believes the skis’ owner may have been surprised by an unexpected event.
“We don’t really believe that these skis were left there voluntarily,” he says.
“There had to have been snow in the rest of the terrain for a person to be skiing in this area. This is someone who had the ability and willingness to cross a mountain pass in winter,” he said.
There may have been an avalanche, or the person may have been surprised by bad weather.
“It's not certain that the person who was wearing the skis died. But we think something happened that caused the person to remove their skis,” he said.
The researchers have also found evidence of reindeer hunting in the area and at several other ice patches in the mountains in the interior. The hunting probably took place mostly in the summer.
“In the summer, the reindeer climbed up to the few patches of ice that were left in the mountains to escape insects and to cool down on hot summer days,” Post-Melbye said.
“Reindeer have a predictable behavioural pattern in the middle of the day that prehistoric hunters would have been very aware of and took advantage of. That is why we find hunting equipment scattered over large areas in the mountains, in snow patches,” he said.
Probably on their way somewhere
There was also a route across the mountain in the area where the skis were found.
It is more likely that the skier was on his or her way somewhere than that the person was out hunting on a winter's day in the 8th century.
This particular route has been in use for a long time. The researchers have also found parts of a wagon from the 18th century in the ice on the mountain pass.
“Whether the skier was passing through on his way to a market, whether the person was on the run, or why the person was there at that time, of course we cannot say."
“But there were lots of settlements on both sides of the mountain in this area in the Iron Age. There were both Norse and Sami settlements in the area in the 9th century,” Post-Melbye said.
The skis are 187 centimetres long and 17 centimetres wide.
“They would be called powder boards today, I think,” Post-Melbye said.
The skis are so well preserved that researchers can learn more about the ski technology that was in use at this time.
The bindings had a toe and heel attachment. The bindings above the ankles were made of twisted willow twigs.
“It was stiff and hard. There were leather supports over the ankles. The skis would have fit well. The skier would have put their leg into a rigid hoop at the front, and then they tied or fastened their boots at the back,” he said.
Long skiing tradition
People in Norway have been skiing long before the Viking Age. The oldest ski that has been found is 2,800 years old.
There are even Stone Age petroglyphs of people on skis.
“Preserved skis from the Stone Age have also been found in Sweden. We know that the history of skiing goes back 6,000 to 7,000 years in Scandinavia,” says Post-Melbye.
The discovery of the skis is one of many that have been made in the glacier archaeological protection programme in Innlandet County, a project called Secrets of the Ice.
This is a collaboration between Innlandet County Council and the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo.
The archaeologists have found more than 3,000 objects, such as hunting equipment, transport equipment, clothing and animal skins. The objects date from the Stone Age, up to the Black Death in the 14th century and from more recent times.
The researchers have uncovered evidence of extensive reindeer hunting, an old mountain pass that was in use for several hundred years, an arrowhead from the Viking Age and a 1,500-year-old knife that a reindeer hunter had lost.
“We know that especially in Innlandet County, there are a lot of cultural and historical objects that are melting out now that the ice is disappearing,” Post-Melbye said. “These areas have been used for reindeer hunting since the Stone Age, and they have also been used as mountain passes for travel.”
Objects made from organic material lie hidden in the ice, objects that have rarely been preserved elsewhere.
“This is very unique source material for archaeological research in Europe,” Post-Melbye said.
The researchers also collect natural history data, such as the remains of animals that have died and been preserved. In addition, they collaborate with climate scientists by taking samples of the ice. The ice can contain information about past climates.
The researchers monitor around 60 locations where archaeological discoveries have been made in Innlandet Country. They use aerial photography and go out into the field to secure objects that melt out of the ice.
Now the ski will be exhibited at the Historical Museum in Oslo.
The exhibition opens in the evening of Tuesday 8 November 2022 and runs for two weeks.
The other ski in the pair is on display in Lom, a town on the fringe of Jotunheimen National Park. Both skis will be exhibited together in Lom next summer. They will then be moved to the new Museum of the Viking Age in Bygdøy when it opens.
“This will be an opportunity to see the skis in Oslo now for a little while, before they will be exhibited elsewhere for a few years,” Post-Melbye said.
Translated by: Nancy Bazilchuk
Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no