8 Amazing Things Uncovered by Melting Glaciers and Ice
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
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
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 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.