1700-year-old wool tunic found in melting glacier

Archaeologists working on Norway’s Lendbreen glacier have found an intact woolen tunic dating to 300 A.D. The tunic is a greenish-brown now — it has darkened over the centuries — with a diamond pattern and it got a lot of use before it was discarded and swallowed up by glacial ice; there are several repaired patches. The garment was used as outerwear by a man about 5’9″ tall who for some mysterious reason took it off right next to a glacier 6,560 feet above sea level. One theory is that suffered from hypothermia which can make victims feel hot even in the middle of a freezing blizzard. Victims of hypothermia have been known to take off their clothes under the delusion that they’re hot.

The age of the tunic was confirmed by radiocarbon dating and archaeologists believe it was left along a Roman-era trade route which stopped being used in the 4th century when the area iced over. Warming global temperatures are melting the glacier at an alarming rate, thus exposing ancient artifacts that have been trapped in ice for centuries. And so environmental disaster yet again proves itself to be a boon for archaeology, but the window for recovery of organic artifacts is very short. As soon as they are exposed to air they begin to decay, and since they’re being exposed by runoff, they go from the preserving embrace of ice to the rotting chokehold of water. Wood can take a few years to rot, but ancient textiles can be destroyed by insects and bacteria in a matter of weeks.

The tunic was found in 2011, but archaeologists have been exploring the glacier since 2006. They have discovered more than 1,600 ancient artifacts exposed by melting ice since then, including wooden weapons, tools and textiles. They range from a 3,000-year-old leather shoe to the remains of a 1000-year-old base camp thought to have been used by reindeer hunters. The hunters set up tents on the top edge of the glacier and used the snowdrifts to trap the animals which would then be dispatched. The meat was probably processed on site and transported back to populated areas.

A remarkable collection of objects testify to this operation: a wooden tent peg, textiles, spear tips, arrows with ingenious split designs or tipped with embedded shell to harden and sharpen the point, a horse shoe, even a complete set of scare sticks, wooden planks tied together to make a lot of noise when shaken. The reindeer would be chased into the snowdrift traps by the sound of the scare sticks. There are artifacts that are unknown to us today whose use is a mystery.

There’s an excellent photo gallery of the more recent Lendbreen finds here and one of some of the older discoveries here.

26 thoughts on “1700-year-old wool tunic found in melting glacier

  1. Are those sleeves extending from the tunic? Or some kind of support for the drying tunic? Was the diamond pattern woven into the cloth, or was it dyed? Also, how were the repairs made? Were the holes just stitched closed, or was more material stitched over the holes?

    And, not to quibble, but how do they know it was worn by a man and not a woman?

    Absolutely fascinating find!

    1. Too many questions I don’t know the answer to! I’ve emailed the park authorities to ask and will let you know. They don’t know it was worn by a man. That was entirely my interpolation based on the height and width of the garment.

  2. And so environmental disaster yet again proves itself to be a boon for archaeology,

    OBJECTION! Assumes facts not in evidence

  3. Considering that these fragile objects have been subjected to 1,000 years plus of grinding between granite rocks as the glacier moved, it is astonishing that anything could survive as completely as it has.

  4. The “scare sticks” look like they were cut with a saw, not an ax. I wonder if they have ever found anything that looks like a saw, and if not how did they cut those boards so flat, with saw kerf-looking marks, me wonders? I hope they have hundreds of people walking around just looking for stuff melting out of the ice; can’t afford to miss any amazing finds. Thanks again for your hard work.

    1. There was no mention of a saw in the articles I read or on the park website with the photo galleries. Of course that’s just a small fraction of the 1,600 artifacts discovered, so who knows what else is on that list.

      I’m afraid the archaeological team is very small. They should make a giant human chain and sweep across the glacier edge. It’s hardy work, though. Even in the short summer season it’s cold and sleety and foggy and dangerous. You’d need some pretty tough volunteers to take it on. Also an extremely strong waiver.

  5. Environmental disaster? Please. The story you tell documents a much warmer time when the tunic was lost, after which, no doubt due to all the SUV’s they were driving about, the climate cooled until now. Anthropogenic global warming, or normal climate movements? Humans are so self centered to think that they are the measure of everything.

    1. Feel free to point to anything I wrote that raised the question of anthropogenic global warming. I specifically avoided getting into it because that’s not what this blog is about. There are many causes of environmental disasters — volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes, droughts, floods, desertification, etc. The phrase alone is neutral, so any assumption that it was a claim about human impact on global temperatures is attributable to you, not me.

      If you want to imagine yourself in a world where human action has no effect on global climate, if you want to wrap yourself in the Little Ice Age or the Medieval Warm Period as if the gradual ebbs and peaks of past climactic cycles are exactly the same as the massive spikes we’re experiencing today, that’s your business. I prefer not to indulge it.

  6. Did I say that human action has no effect? Thanks for putting words in my post, just as you accuse me of putting in yours. But then you are indeed arguing in your response that anthropogenic global warming exists, aren’t you?

    Wake up. It’s nothing more than the latest scare tactic by those who want to use it as an excuse to run our lives. Where today is the threat of acid rain? Of the ozone hole? Those were the boogy men of days past, just like AGW is today.

    All the “science” that has been cited in the past to support AGW has been shown to be fraudulent, and those who don’t like being questioned about it demand that no one challenge them, by falsely claiming the “science is settled,” which is another way to demand that people like me simply shut up. Real scientists will tell you that true science is rarely settled. Let’s see who is right in twenty years, given there has been no real change in global climate over the last 15.

  7. Not to interrupt a mediocre pissing match, but I wanted to thank you for making large photos available in your reports. I like to see what I’m reading about. I know large versions aren’t always available, but I appreciate you using them when they are.

  8. Does it really matter who (or what) is causing it? I live in the Midwestern US, and the massive drought we are living through right now may be caused by wiggling weevils for all we care. The world is ill-prepared for climate change caused by anything. 7 billion mouths to feed, any drop in food production (as is caused by a massive drought) can only be a humanitarian nightmare. Lets stop arguing semantics (warming,changing,human changed,normal fluctuations) and start trying to figure out, what next? It’s wonderful to find all these artifacts; the reason they are being exposed after all this time should give us pause.

  9. I agree, the pictures on this blog are the best! I have seen so many amazing and beautiful things since I started reading it and there are(almost) always links to more fascinating pictures/info.Thank you for your hard work, livius drusus!

  10. Hi,
    I can answer a few of the questions (if it is not too late).
    The scaring sticks are made from split pine-wood. No saws used.
    The tunic was found at the upper edge of the glacier in an area, where the ice is not moving. Otherwise it would not have been preserved.
    There are 40 other known sites in the high mountains surrounding the Lendbreen glacier, but this is the only site connected to a mountain crossing. The others are reindeer hunting sites.
    The ice is melting, being it due to man-made emissions as the scientific consensus is or not. This is what we have to focus on: To save the artifacts, which will otherwise be lost, as they degrade quickly once they are out of the freezer.

  11. I really don’t understand why people feel they need to argue. I appreciate the article as is. It’s an interesting find and I enjoyed reading it. :chicken:

  12. Thank you for showing me such an interesting story. I am interested in both textiles and in how people lived their day to day lives in earlier times (whether decades ago, or centuries ago, or longer). I know a little about my northern European ancestors, from coursework in college, but it was cursory. There is so much still unknown. Each little bit adds to the picture of what their lives were like. This is a remarkable textile: the weaving pattern (one of the oldest) shows so very clearly. What is known about the fibres used? The shoes are also interesting; similar to some “mocassins” worn by people I am descended from in the American Southwest. (I wore mocassins most of the time until my teens, but of a different style.) Your blog is interesting, and I plan on exploring it more. Wish people would read with open minds rather than feeling they have to pick things apart. Wouldn’t it be interesting if, instead of arguing about things that are irrelevant, they did their own research and shared what they learned?

  13. By the way, I learned from my elders how to split wood to make things. Houses and shelters were made from split planks, storage boxes from smaller planks, many tools and tool handles from sticks or split down wood. Corners were smoothed with knives, rocks and sand. Intricate carvings were made with adzes and other implements. It is a treat to watch a totem pole being made, or a longhouse built. Many woods have pronounced grain that to the inexperienced eye or a mind shaped by modern techniques might be interpreted as “saw marks”. But our technologies were just as sophisticated in a different way, and often much more innovative.

  14. Perhaps calling the melting glaciers an “environmental disaster,” is at least an opinion, if not an assumption.

  15. Wow, I’d love to know any more details on the tent peg? has it been dated?
    looks to be made from from a branch, I wonder what type of wood?

  16. Same, I’d like to learn move about the tent peg. :hattip:
    :giggle: :facepalm: 👿 😮 😥 😎 :confused: :chicken: 😉 :boogie: :yes: :blush: :thanks: :blankstare: :skull: :angry: :shifty: 😀 :p 🙂 🙁 :ohnoes: :notworthy: :no: :love: 😆 :giggle:

  17. Thank you for your hard work and for posting this fascinating info.
    As a felter and weaver, this kind of find–the Lendbreen tunic–is so interesting to hear about. Would like to see in person some day!

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