In 2011, hikers in the snowy mountains of central Norway came across a 1700-year-old wool tunic, likely belonging to a Roman-era hypothermia victim. As ice in the region has continued to melt, researchers have made hundreds of additional finds. Now, archaeologists have made their biggest discovery yet: a lost Viking trade route that may have been used for hundreds of years to ferry everything from butter to reindeer antlers to far-flung European markets.
“The Viking age is one of small-scale globalization: They’re sourcing raw materials from all over,” says Søren Michael Sindbæk, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who was not involved with the work. “This is the first site where we have good chronology and the finds to illustrate that.”
In the new study, Lars Piloe, an archaeologist at the Innlandet County Council Department of Cultural Heritage in Lillehammer, Norway, and colleagues radiocarbon dated dozens of artifacts from the Jotunheimen mountains. They focused on an ice patch known as Lendbreen, which has melted rapidly over the past 9 years, collecting the relics between 2011 and 2015. The objects date back to the Bronze Age, between 1750 B.C.E. and 300 C.E., the team found. The oldest are mostly arrows and other hunting equipment, likely used to kill reindeer.
Toward the top of the ice patch, however, the artifacts were different and more densely concentrated. The freshly exposed ground was littered with iron horseshoes and nails, walking sticks, shattered sleds, woolen mittens, leather shoes, the bones of dead horses, and piles of horse dung.
The team identified dozens of piled stone cairns marking a path up from the valley below, and the foundations of a shelter just below the ridgeline. “It dawned on us that this was a mountain pass,” from a river valley nearby to high mountain pastures, Piloe says. “It’s the first time we have a site like this in northern Europe.”
The radiocarbon dates show that the pass came into regular use around 300 C.E. Locals used year-round snow cover to navigate the ridge’s jagged rocks, the researchers argue today in Antiquity. From the nearby Otta River, trading outposts would have been just a few days downstream.
“It may seem counterintuitive, but high mountains sometimes did serve as major communications routes, instead of major barriers,” says study co-author James Barrett, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge. “It’s easy to travel at high elevations, once you get up there and there’s snow on the ground.”
Goods were moved seasonally, with cattle herded to mountain meadows in the spring, and reindeer antlers and hides, butter, and animal fodder transported back down in the fall.
Lendbreen’s days as a transportation route peaked in the Viking Age, around 1000 C.E., the team estimates. The dates suggest the population pressure pushing Viking-era Scandinavians onto ships bound for the far corners of Europe and North America also prompted them to explore ever-more-remote corners of their homeland, like the high mountains.
“It’s a society operating close to the carrying capacity of the landscape,” Sindbæk says. “If there wasn’t such a large population, they wouldn’t need to exploit these niches.”
The pass was a vital link connecting what seems at first glance like a remote, inhospitable corner of Norway to a wider Viking age world of trade and commerce. Combs made from reindeer antler show up in Viking graves far to the south, for example, and historical records suggest butter was a major export from Norway to England.
The number of finds declines sharply around 1400 C.E. coinciding with the Black Death in Norway, which killed an estimated half of the country’s medieval population. Together with the so-called Little Ice Age, a centurieslong cold spell that began around 1300 C.E., the plague crushed the area’s economy. The pass was forgotten for more than 500 years—until archaeologists rediscovered it.
After another extreme summer melt in 2018, Piloe says, all Lendbreen’s Viking-era ice, along with the artifacts it once concealed, is probably gone.