8 Amazing Things Uncovered by Melting Glaciers and Ice

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As the climate warms, ice patches, glaciers, and permafrosts across the world have begun to give up their hidden history. As a result, glacial archaeology—the study of objects retrieved from glaciers and ice patches—has recently come into its own. Ötzi the iceman, uncovered in the Alps in 1991, is one of the most famous and important such archaeological finds, but there are plenty of other examples of bodies, artifacts, landscapes, and even deadly pathogens found beneath the ice. 

1. SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF A MISSING COUPLE // SWITZERLAND

On August 15, 1942, Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin went to milk their cows high in an alpine field near Chandolin in southwestern Switzerland. They were never seen alive again. The couple's seven children were left wondering what had happened to their parents, and as the search for the missing couple continued the siblings were split up and placed with several local families. In July 2017 the mystery was finally solved when ski workers uncovered the perfectly preserved bodies of the Dumoulins on the receding Tsanfleuron glacier. It was immediately obvious that the bodies were from the 1940s due to the clothes they were wearing, and identity papers allowed police to identify the couple. Police speculated that they must have fallen down a crevasse, snow and ice enveloping their bodies, until the warming air on the shrinking glacier finally uncovered their resting place almost 75 years later. Their youngest daughter, Marceline Udry-Dumoulin, 75, said that her siblings never gave up looking for their parents, adding: “I can say that after 75 years of waiting this news gives me a deep sense of calm.”

2. 1000-YEAR-OLD FOREST // ALASKA

Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska
Jasperdo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska (seen above), was advancing over 1000 years ago, a flow of glacial melt—icy water and gravel—preceded its path, covering an ancient forest with gravel. This gravel acted as a sort of cushion, so that when the glacier itself enveloped the forest the majority of the trees weren't crushed, and some even remained standing. Over the last 50 years, as the glacier has receded, the trees and stumps have slowly been uncovered, and in recent years as the melt has sped up—shrinking at a rate of 170 feet per year since 2005—more and more of this ancient woodland has been revealed. Archaeologists have been working to identify and age the trees, some of which retain their bark, and thus far tests by University of Alaska Southeast Professor of Geology and Environmental Science Program Coordinator Cathy Connor have revealed that they range from 1200 to an astonishing 2350 years old.

3. IRON AGE HORSE // NORWAY

In September 2013, bones from an Iron Age horse were uncovered from a site over 6500 feet high in the mountains of Norway. The horse, found alongside perfectly preserved manure and a horseshoe, indicates to archaeologists that Iron Age peoples were using these animals to carry cargo at high altitude over the mountains near Oppland in Norway. Archaeologists working in the region are increasingly finding new artifacts revealed by melting glaciers and ice patches, but they're working in a race against time—the artifacts remain perfectly preserved while locked in the ice, but as soon as the ice melts, they are in danger of degradation from contact with the open air. Earlier in 2013, an amazingly well-preserved 1700-year-old woollen tunic was also rescued from melting ice in the region—two patches on the garment showed that it had been carefully mended by its Iron Age owner.

4. INCAN CHILD SACRIFICE VICTIMS // ARGENTINA

School children look at one of the mummies found in the Llullaillaco volcano.
School children look at one of the mummies found in the Llullaillaco volcano, on display at the High Mountain Archaeology Museum in Salta, Argentina.
Juan Mabromata/Getty Images

The extremely well-preserved frozen bodies of three Incan child sacrifice victims were found entombed on the Llullaillaco volcano in Argentina in 1999. The bodies of a 13-year-old girl, plus a boy and girl both about four or five years old, were found at 22,000 feet up, and are considered the best-preserved ice mummies in the world. They have allowed scientists to carry out a number of tests that have increased our knowledge of capacocha—the Incan tradition of child sacrifice.

Spanish chronicles indicated that the Incas would select especially talented or beautiful children to be sacrificed to the gods to celebrate important milestones or in response to natural disasters. By analyzing hair from the 13-year-old, known as the “Llullaillaco maiden” due to her serene expression, researchers discovered that she had been heavily drugged with coca leaves (from which cocaine is derived) and alcohol. She was dressed in expensive clothes, was well-nourished, and had beautifully braided hair, which historians think indicates she was very well looked after during the year before her death. Traces from the hair of all three victims shows that they were heavily sedated with drugs before being taken up to their lofty tombs on the volcano, where they likely died of hypothermia about 500 years ago. Nearby residents have concluded that the mummies were found just in time, before higher summer temperatures would have damaged them.

5. WWI SOLDIERS // NORTHERN ITALY

As the highest settlement of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the small village of Peio in modern-day northern Italy was dragged into the conflict of World War I in 1915. Here, at altitudes over 6500 feet, intrepid soldiers fought in what became known as the White War. Due to the inhospitable conditions and the freezing weather, specialist mountain soldiers were recruited—the Italians had the Alpini, who sported distinctive feathered caps, and the Austrians had the Kaiserschützen. The fierce conflict high in the mountains went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world at the time but today, as the region's ice melts, archaeologists and historians are learning more about the amazing feats of bravery of those involved.

A variety of artifacts have been uncovered from the melting glacier, including a poignant unmailed love letter to a girl named Maria, soldiers’ helmets and guns, and, of course, bodies. In 2012, the mummified bodies of two blond and blue-eyed Austrian soldiers, aged just 17 and 18 years old, were uncovered from the ice—both had been shot through the head and buried in a crevasse on the Presena glacier by their comrades. Locals held a funeral for the pair in 2013, and 200 people from around Peio attended.

6. ARCTIC MUMMIES WRAPPED IN COPPER // SIBERIA

The mummified bodies of an adult and child were recently excavated from the melting permafrost near Salekhard, Siberia, inside the Arctic Circle. The bodies were found in Zelenyy Yar, an ancient necropolis that has since 1997 been an ongoing archaeological site. Researchers have uncovered more than 100 burials in the area. These latest mummies are of an adult at least 5 foot 7 in height, covered in canvas and birch bark overlaid with copper strips, and a small baby, thought to be about 6 months old. Archaeologists think that the bodies date from the Medieval period, and hope that further analysis will reveal more about these little-known Arctic peoples.

7. ANTHRAX RELEASED FROM PERMAFROST // SIBERIA

A herdsman in Siberia handles his reindeer.
Atyana Makeyeva/AFP/Getty Images

A 2016 hot spell with temperatures reaching 86˚F exacerbated the melting permafrost in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, unleashing some unwelcome pathogens back into the environment. The body of a reindeer infected with anthrax was uncovered by the melting permafrost, releasing the reanimated spores into the atmosphere. The disease, which had not been seen in the region for 75 years, infected local herds of reindeer and then at least 20 people, causing serious illness and the death of a 12-year-old boy.

Scientists are also concerned about other dormant pathogens being re-introduced as further warming unlocks them from their frozen state in the permafrost. Spanish flu, smallpox, and bubonic plague could all be released in the future as the shallow graves holding victims of past epidemics slowly melt.

8. NEW ISLANDS UNCOVERED // GREENLAND

Researchers studying the Steenstrup and Kier Glaciers in northwest Greenland noted the emergence of several new islands from the ice between 1999 and 2014. In the last 60 years, the Steenstrup Glacier has retreated some 6.21 miles, uncovering islands dotted around the coast, and requiring maps to be redrawn. Over time glaciers naturally retreat and advance in a cyclical fashion, but according to glacier researcher Mauri Pelto of Nichols College, the recent pace and extent of the retreat has suggested an acceleration due to global warming. If the ice continues to recede, more landmasses that have lain hidden in the ice for thousands of years could be exposed.

5 Actors Who Could Play the Next Batman

iStock
iStock

by Natalie Zamora

Ben Affleck's casting as the Caped Crusader wasn't exactly met with a lot of excitement. While many DC fans were (and still are) happy with the casting, many definitely weren't, and even took it upon themselves to think of who could replace him. Now, with Affleck's role in Matt Reeves's upcoming The Batman completely unknown, it's worth looking at who has been actually rumored to take his place.

5. JAKE GYLLENHAAL

Jake Gyllenhaal attends the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival - 'The Sisters Brothers' premiere at Princess of Wales Theatre on September 8, 2018
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images

As early as November 2017, Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal has been rumored to be playing the next Batman. Reportedly, Gyllenhaal had a meeting with Matt Reeves, something reporter Rob Keyes tweeted out at the time. When asked about the possibility, the actor shot it down, saying, "Wow, that’s a very difficult question. The answer to that question is no."

4. RYAN GOSLING

Ryan Gosling attends the 'First Man' press conference during 2018 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 11, 2018
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images

Another acclaimed actor, Academy Award nominee Ryan Gosling has also been rumored to take on the role of Bruce Wayne for some time. When recently asked at the Toronto International Film Festival if he would consider, Gosling simply said, "I don't know," before joking that if his First Man and La La Land director Damien Chazelle made it, he'd be in.

3. JOSH BROLIN

Josh Brolin attends the 'Sicario Day Of The Soldado' Photo Call at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Matt Winkelmeyer, Getty Images

Although Josh Brolin now plays two major Marvel characters, Cable and Thanos, he once confirmed he was in the running for Ben Affleck's role in 2016. Ultimately, Brolin backed out after he had disagreements with Zack Snyder on how the character should be played. Ever since Affleck's departure from directing The Batman, Brolin has been rumored to take the role.

2. MATTHEW GOODE

Actor Matthew Goode attends the 'The Imitation Game' New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theater in 2014
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images for The Weinstein Company

Like Brolin, Matthew Goode was also one of the actors in the running to play Batman before Ben Affleck was cast. He was also reportedly considered for the roles of both Superman and Lex Luthor. Clearly, Goode would be welcomed into the DCEU. Now would be the perfect time.

1. JON HAMM

Jon Hamm attends the Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures And New Line Cinema's 'Tag' at Regency Village Theatre on June 7, 2018 in Westwood, California
Jerritt Clark, Getty Images

Ever since Jon Hamm played the dark and brooding role of Don Draper on Mad Men, fans have been rallying for him to play Batman. Though rumors have been circulating for years, Hamm just recently revealed that he has never had a conversation about the possibility. However, he did say he would be interested, if the script was good.

13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

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iStock

When Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell sits down to assess the lives of the recently departed, she feels less like a journalist and more like a historian. “I sometimes feel like I’m a frustrated history teacher,” she tells Mental Floss. “I get to teach a lesson every day and share it with readers.”

Unlike death notices, which only recite basic facts about the deceased, or funeral eulogies, which offer impassioned remembrances from loved ones, obituaries are a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. Instead of dwelling on death they celebrate life, from the most recognizable celebrity to the quietest neighbor. They prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.

O’Donnell recalls a 2010 death notice for a Montana resident named Jim Cole, which mentioned his interest in photographing grizzly bears. Only after excavating details of his life did she realize Cole is the only person in North America to survive two grizzly attacks, 14 years apart. “They called him Grizzly Jim,” she says. “He wore an eyepatch because the second attack left him without an eye.” (Cole died of natural, not wildlife-related, causes at age 60.)

For more on how obituary writers approach the delicate art of human posterity, we asked several of them—including O’Donnell—to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say about a life spent covering death.

1. THEY LOOK FOR THE “ROSEBUD” MOMENT.

John Pope, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and assembled a book of obituaries, Getting Off at Elysian Fields, says that the goal of his work is to discover the “Rosebud” moment of an individual’s life. (That's a reference to the 1941 film Citizen Kane, and the desire of a reporter to define the mysterious dying word uttered by wealthy business magnate Kane.) “I look for ‘Rosebud,’ what makes a person tick,” he says. “When you talk to relatives, they talk about how he loved family, how he loved life, but you need to keep going and dig deeper.”

In 2009, Pope was tasked with profiling William Terral, a beloved pediatrician and gardening hobbyist. While the former was a noble career, Pope found his real jewel in the fact that Terral was once so struck by the bag of plasma separated from his blood during a medical procedure that he took it home, hung it from an IV hook, and pumped the liquid into the ground to see if it would help his garden grow. “His hibiscus flourished,” Pope says. So did his obituary.

2. IT’S ACTUALLY A PRETTY UPLIFTING JOB.

The stereotype of obituary writers toiling under the shadow of death, constantly aware of the fragile nature of life, isn’t exactly accurate. According to Pope, some family members have such fond memories of the deceased that talking to them can provoke a lot of amusement. “With Edward ‘Bud Rip’ Ripoll, a saloonkeeper, I had to ask his daughter to stop because I was laughing so hard and the stories were so good,” he says. (Ripoll was a Budweiser fan, and his urn was inscribed with the dedication, “This Bud’s for you.”)

O’Donnell describes it as “uplifting” work. “You’re frequently writing about people who made a difference in the world, large or small. The end of life is always sorrowful, but with someone like Mary White, who lived to be 93 and started the La Leche League [to normalize public breastfeeding] in her living room that now has tens of millions of members across the globe, that’s inspiring.”

3. THEY SOMETIMES KNOW WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT.

Yellow flowers sit on top of a coffin
iStock

Obituary writers have all kinds of information channels when it comes to mortality. Funeral homes may call to notify them; death notices in their paper or in another might provide a clue that a lesser-known person’s life is worth investigating further. Or they may simply be tipped off that the end is near. “For Barbara Harris, who was a founding member of Second City, one of my co-workers heard she was ill,” O’Donnell says. “I was able to prepare the obituary in advance, so when the time came, there was something comprehensive for readers available.”

Other times, that information can be a little off. When an editor was sure a prominent celebrity was going to die, Pope was told to prepare a lengthy obituary. “It was Paul Prudhomme, a chef who a line editor was convinced was going to launch to glory at any moment," Pope says. “He died 27 years later.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE READY FOR AN EMOTIONAL DELUGE.

Mike Bodine, who writes for the Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, California, says that an obituary writer will often be the first person a relative of the deceased has spoken to in depth about a loved one’s passing. “They can be really distraught,” he says. “It’s a matter of waiting it out while people just let their heart out. You can’t always use what they’re saying, but just listening and being patient can help open people up. It can feel a little bit like handling the body itself. You don’t want to push people.”

5. THEY CAN GET CAUGHT UP IN FAMILY SQUABBLES.

Phoning family members to collect memories of the recently deceased can be a sobering experience. Bodine says that children of the deceased can sometimes try to use an obituary to vent about personal vendettas. “When someone has passed and a lot of money and kids are involved, it can turn into animosity,” he says. “Someone will say a sibling is screwing them over on money. It’s just distortion you have to wade through.”

6. FAMILIES CAN GET UPSET AT THEM.

While an obituary writer’s job is to celebrate life, that doesn't mean they exclude the less-flattering components. When he was writing about a local politician, Pope discovered that he had once been to prison for misappropriating campaign funds. When he mentioned that in the obituary, the man’s daughter phoned in an uproar. “She asked why we were doing that. I told her it was because it was the truth.”

O’Donnell has had similar experiences. “Unfortunately, in Chicago, a lot of politicians have been investigated and convicted of corruption," she says. "It gets reported at the time it happened and readers would have known about it. It would be a disingenuous, fraud obituary if you didn’t include it.”

7. OTHER TIMES, PEOPLE LIE.

Family members may also omit certain facts. Because obituaries are perceived as the last word on many people, relatives and friends sometimes lean into the idea it should be a hagiography. “With [socialite] Mickey Easterling, no one was going to tell me her age,” Pope says. “I had to cite public records, which I’ve never had to do before.” On another occasion, the deceased’s loved ones refused to inform Pope that a suicide had occurred. He found out the truth months later, after listing the cause of death as “undetermined” in the obituary.

8. IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON CERTAIN DAYS THAN OTHERS.

A death certificate sits on top of a table
iStock

If you want a well-read obituary, try to die on a Friday. According to Pope, people who expire that day of the week are more likely to be targeted for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the paper, which affords more space and more time for the obituary writer to do a thorough job. “Dying on a Friday will get you more play on a Sunday,” he says. Holidays are also ill-advised times to make an exit, as reporters with dedicated beats (politics, movies, sports) aren’t usually around to assist in reporting notable deaths in those fields, and readership is down.

While you'd think the dying and their associates would have more pressing issues, sometimes they prioritize that recognition: In 1936, King George V's physician injected the monarch with enough morphine and cocaine to hasten his death in time for the next morning's papers, rather than the less-desirable evening editions.

9. PEOPLE CAN BE A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND THEM.

When an obituary writer becomes well-known in the community, their very presence can portend bad news. If Pope needs to phone someone for any reason other than someone’s passing, he’ll sometimes begin the call by saying, “It’s Pope. No one died.”

That slight unease can work both ways. Once, Pope walked into a social gathering where three people whose obituaries he had already written and banked for future use were standing. “I just kind of stopped,” he says.

10. THEY GET INVITED TO FUNERALS.

Obituaries are often treasured by families who appreciate how a writer has summarized and memorialized the deceased. Sometimes, that gratitude can extend to invitations to come to the funeral. “That happens with some frequency,” O’Donnell says. “I went to the services for a rock concert roadie, who I didn’t know, but he worked a lot of rock concerts I went to the in 1970s. I met a lot of people there who went to the same concerts.”

Other times, they’ll be dispatched to cover the funeral for the purposes of writing a piece. “I went to Al Copeland’s funeral, the founder of Popeyes Chicken,” Pope says. “There were 24 white Bentleys, a horse-drawn hearse, and a band playing ‘My Way.’” The solemn music continued until the procession reached the grave, at which point they broke into “Love That Chicken From Popeyes.”

11. CERTAIN PHRASES CAN ANNOY THEM.

Work the death beat long enough and certain recurring phrases begin to wear on a writer’s patience. Pope dislikes using the term the late to precede a decedent’s name. “What’s the point?” he says. “Can we get over that?” He also dislikes funeral service because “it’s redundant,” and avoids using “natural causes” as the reason for a death whenever possible, because it's non-specific. "Always get the cause of death," he says.

12. SOME PEOPLE USE OBITS TO TAKE REVENGE.

A highlighter is run over the word 'revenge'
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O’Donnell says she's struck by the more contemporary practice of “revenge” obituaries, which are penned by family members and tend to criticize their departed relative for allegations relating to abuse or other personal reasons that have prompted a vendetta. Pope recalls a time when a widow sent in a death notice to his paper claiming her late husband’s law firm had sent him to an early grave. “We spent a day with lawyers de-fanging it,” he says.

13. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS SHOW CALLED “THE GRIMMYS.”

Acting as a kind of unofficial trade organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers invites devotees of the dead to exchange information on their work and attend functions like ObitCon. Each year, awards—known as the Grimmys—are awarded for best long- and short-form obituaries, as well as for lifetime achievement. The trophy resembles a tombstone. “I was nominated last year,” Pope says.

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