Discovery of ancient traces

Melting Alpine glaciers yield archaeologic troves

By   |  Published: 17th Oct 2020  1:07 pm

Sion: The group climbed the steep mountainside, clambering across an Alpine glacier, before finding what they were seeking: a crystal vein filled with the precious rocks needed to sculpt their tools. That is what archaeologists have deduced after the discovery of traces of an ancient hunt for crystals by hunters and gatherers in the Mesolithic era, some 9,500 years ago.

It is one of many valuable archaeological sites to emerge in recent decades from rapidly melting glacier ice, sparking a brand-new field of research: glacier archaeology. Amid surging temperatures, glaciologists predict that 95 percent of the some 4,000 glaciers dotted throughout the Alps could disappear by the end of this century.

While archaeologists lament the devastating toll of climate change, many acknowledge it has created “an opportunity” to dramatically expand understanding of mountain life millennia ago.

“We are making very fascinating finds that open up a window into a part of archaeology that we don’t normally get,” said Marcel Cornelissen, who headed an excavation trip last month to the remote crystal site near the Brunifirm glacier in the eastern Swiss canton of Uri, at an altitude of 2,800 metres (9,100 feet). Up until the early 1990s, it was widely believed that people in prehistoric times steered clear of towering and intimidating mountains.

But a number of startling finds have since emerged from melting ice indicating that mountain ranges like the Alps have been bustling with human activity for thousands of years. Early humans are now believed to have hiked up into the mountains to travel to nearby valleys, hunt or put animals out to pastures, and to search for raw materials.

Christian auf der Maur, an archaeologist with Uri canton who participated in the crystal site expedition, said the find there was “truly exceptional”. “We know now that people were hiking up to the mountains to up to 3,000 metres altitude, looking for crystals and other primary materials.” The first major ancient Alpine find to emerge from the melting ice was the discovery in 1991 of “Oetzi”, a 5,300-year-old warrior whose body had been preserved inside an Alpine glacier in the Italian Tyrol region.

Theories say that he may have been a rare example of a prehistoric human venturing into the Alps have been belied by findings since of numerous ancient traces of people crossing high altitude mountain passes.