Horse dung, discarded horseshoes and the bones of horses were found littering a long-forgotten mountain pass in Norway that was crucial to travellers for more than 1200 years.
The high mountain pass over Lendbreen in Breheimen has emerged from melting snow and ice, revealing a treasure trove of artifacts that date back to its first use around AD 300 and ending in medieval times around AD 1500.
Scientists believe the use of the important pass was at its peak around AD 1000, during the Viking era — a time of increased mobility, political centralisation and growing trade and urbanisation in Northern Europe.
Lars Pilø, Espen Finstad and James Barrett, writing in the journal Antiquity, say the finds at Lendbreen provide new insights into the socio-economic factors that influenced high-elevation travel.
The evidence left behind on the track also increases researchers’ understanding of the role of mountain passes in regional communication and exchange.
The Lendbreen ice patch first came to prominence in 2011, after the discovery of a woollen tunic dating from around the third or fourth century AD.
The site at first yielded arrows and other items that would have been used during the old reindeer hunts that used to take place on the ice.
But then the area began to yield horseshoes, horse dung, textiles, various wooden objects and much more.
It became clear that Lendbreen had been much more than a hunting station. It had clearly been an important transport route that linked those in mountain villages to those living on the coast.
A subsequent survey of the area surrounding the original garment revealed about 800 artifacts, some 150 bones and antlers, more than 100 cairns and the foundations of a stone-built shelter.
It is now clear that Lendbreen was a focal point for regional stock movement and probably also long-range travel by people.
Work on the pass is led by the Inland County Council in Norway. Secrets of the Ice is the resulting collaboration between the county municipality and the Cultural History Museum in Oslo to secure the archaeological finds.
The number of horse-related artifacts highlights the importance of the animal to transport.
The sequence of cairns identified by researchers marks the way up the northern, partly ice-covered slope, over the summit ridge and down its southern face towards the Bøverdalen Valley.
Here, the route probably split, with one path leading to the large permanent farm of Sulheim and another heading south-west to the rich pastures of Neto.
The ruin of an undated stone-built shelter is near the top of the ice field. Indeed, among five known passes on Lomseggen mountain known from old oral accounts and/or archaeology, only Lendbreen has such a shelter and a large number of cairns.
It was, according to the researchers, clearly a route of special significance.
The finds along the route are described as diverse. They include the remains of sleds, walking sticks, horseshoes, horse bones and horse dung.
It also includes everyday objects, particularly clothing and textile items, such as a tunic, a woven mitten, several shoes made from hide and more than 50 textile rags.
The main path is clearly indicated by the distribution of the horse-related artifacts.
“Given their mass, the iron horseshoes and nails are less likely to have been displaced than the lighter organic objects, and should, therefore, provide a reliable indication of the route.
“Other objects were more scattered, perhaps reflecting hunting activity or individuals taking different paths up the ridge. Alternatively, scattered finds may represent the post-depositional spreading of lighter objects.”
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 researchers wrote.
They say there was a clear need to move livestock from settlements north of Lomseggen to Neto (probably in June) and back again (probably in September).
Products also needed to be transported home from Neto, some in summer (for example, butter) and some perhaps during the autumn or winter, as conditions allowed (for example, stored fodder).
Pilø and Finstad are archaeologists with the Department of Cultural Heritage, part of the Innlandet County Council; Barrett is with the University of Cambridge in England.
Crossing the ice: an Iron Age to medieval mountain pass at Lendbreen, Norway
Lars Pilø, Espen Finstad and James H. Barrett.
Antiquity, Volume 94, Issue 374 https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.2