Lendbreen ice patch was a mountain pass, also SHEEP

For more than a decade, archaeologists have been studying the rapidly melting Lendbreen ice patch in Norway’s Breheimen National Park as the receding ice exposes a wealth of ancient and medieval remains and artifacts. The latest results published in the journal Antiquity delve into the chronology and distribution of the finds which indicate the Lendbreen ice patch was a mountain pass, not just a reindeer hunting ground.

It was short cut over the Lomseggen ridge and while it would have been nigh on impossible to traverse the bare ice with pack animals, it was usually covered in snow which smoothed the way. The central track is dense with transport remains, including horse skulls, horse shoes, horse dung, tools used to clamp fodder on a wagon or sled and even an equine snowshoe. The pass was in active use from around 300 A.D. until the early modern period, with peak traffic around 1000 A.D. during the Viking era. At some point between 1500 and 1700, the pass fell into disuse and its very existence was forgotten until climate change and the retreat of the ice revealed the objects left behind by many travelers over more than a thousand years of use.

Lendbreen’s historical significance made worldwide news in 2011 when archaeologists discovered a wool tunic from the Roman Iron Age, 230-390 A.D., the oldest garment ever found in Norway. Since then, more than 800 artifacts (many transport-related like iron horseshoes, sleds and walking sticks), 150 bones and antlers, 100+ burial cairns delineating the route and the remains of a stone shelter at its top have been discovered, evidence of how extensively the pass was used from the Roman Iron Age through the Middle Ages into the 16th century. None of other passes over the Lomseggen ridge — and there are five known from local oral history or archaeological investigation — have a stone-built shelter, nor do they have anything like Lendbreen’s quantity of cairns.

Although similarities in function exist, Lendbreen’s use as a mountain pass occurred later than the earliest known Alpine examples. This chronological difference probably reflects low settlement density and low economic activity in the Lendbreen region before AD 300. Once the pass was in use, the radiocarbon dates from Lendbreen imply chronological variability in the intensity of high-elevation activity. Dates on objects probably associated with the site’s use as a mountain pass cluster in the Roman Iron Age and peak in the years around AD 1000. This chronology may reflect shifts in the demand for mountain products and in the motivation behind local and long-distance travel, based on a combination of environmental, social, economic and demographic influences.

The post-medieval and late medieval decline in the KDE distribution could, in part, relate to climatic deterioration during the Little Ice Age…, and to depopulation during the well-documented impact of the fourteenth-century plague…. That the dates cluster in the Viking Age, particularly around AD 1000, is unlikely to be coincidental as it was a time of high mobility, emerging urbanism and increasing political centralisation in Scandinavia, and a period in which markets around the Irish, North and Baltic Seas were growing…. The resulting demands on rural producers, and the need to transport outfield products, may explain the increased activity in the high mountains….

Speaking of the wool tunic found in the thawing ice, some of you old timers at this here blog might recall that in 2014 the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Mountain Centre in Lom each commissioned a reconstruction the Lendbreen tunic using traditional techniques. This would give each institution the opportunity to exhibit the recreations and to research how woolen textiles were made in Iron Age Norway. Starting with wool from a Norwegian heritage breed of sheep that retain both the overhair and underwool that have been bred out of most modern domesticated sheep, experts investigated the materials, tools and weaving techniques used to made the 2/2 diamond twill textile, how the sleeves were sewn on and how the garment was finished.

The fascinating and complicated process was published in Archaeological Textiles Review in 2017, but I didn’t realize that until, driven by the new publication of the wider Lendbreen research, I sought out follow-up information on the tunic reproductions just now. I apologize for the unconscionable delay to all the textile craft aficionados who commented on the 2014 post with so much enthusiasm and additional information.

The whole paper can be read here and omg y’all seriously it’s amazing. I can’t sew a stitch and I was absolutely riveted. But wait! There’s more! There’s a video about the tunic starting with the discovery and then going into depth on the reconstruction. The Villsau sheep, total scene-stealers every one of them, were not shorn, incidentally. The farmer just plucked the fleece off when the animals were shedding on their own. That ensures the fibers are sealed at both ends and greatly increases the water-repellent and insulating capabilities of the wool. The before and after of the plucked sheep is priceless.

Just to give you an idea of what kind of work was involved here, each tunic required 2.5 kilos (5.5 lb) of underwool. Ten people timed themselves spinning the wool by hand and it took them 11 hours to spin 50 grams (.1 lb). Extrapolating from that experiment, it would have taken one hand-spinner 544 hours to make enough yarn for the tunic. No wonder the garment was extensively repaired; this was not a discardable consumer product. It was a treasured valuable.

11 thoughts on “Lendbreen ice patch was a mountain pass, also SHEEP

  1. It’s always super cool (heh) to see how well these cold environments preserve fragile material like fibers.

  2. The possible scenarios to solve the mystery of the tunic are just as engaging. Possibly this was an attempted theft gone wrong.

  3. Imagine what clothes would cost now if they took so much time and care. And I would have to run around naked, as I wouldn’t be able to afford a tunic on a teacher’s salary!very cool!

  4. I was imagining someone getting hot climbing the pass and hanging their sweaty tunic off the back of their pack so it could dry (and maybe so their fellow travelers could admire their battered-but-expensive garment).

    Then it falls off and they don’t notice until an hour later and it’s too late (for whatever reason) to go back, or maybe they do go back but still can’t find it.

  5. What a wonderful video! I was very surprised to see the arm holes cut to shape instead of what we are used to seeing in “old” shifts, where everything is left square and an underarm gusset is added.

  6. Absolutely fascinating video and paper. With reference to the size of the tunic, could it have been worn by a woman? with it being cut shorter to cope with trekking through/over the snow in the pass. I presume that it was not only men who travelled this way?

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