Melting ice

Posted August 25th, 2008 by Andrea Vianello

The thought of melting ice might still be comforting some people as we approach the end of summer. However, I would like to propose some reflections on melting glaciers rather than on the ice cubes on our drinks. The debate on climate change has prompted a new wave of research on glaciers, which have been very much on the spotlight this summer, and especially from June 2008. The United Nations Environment Programme has published a report on this subject, confirming that indeed glaciers were shrinking worldwide. Reports have concentrated upon Arctic Sea, Antarctica, where the changes have been quite dramatic, abrupt and alarming: for example, a Russian ice camp had to be evacuated early as the ice was literally melting under their feet. Melting ice made the news also in Africa and South America. Alpine glaciers are also retreating, but in a less spectacular or dramatic way. But is this relevant to archaeologists?

Archaeologists have been talking of melting glaciers since 1991, when Oetzi the iceman was found in the Alps. The “exceptional” discovery of the naturally mummified body of a person with soft tissues, clothes and tools still intact has ensured regular discoveries on Neolithic Europe. The latest study to make the news has focused on the clothes in case you missed it. However, in 2003 there has been another comparable discovery in the Alps: the melting glacier on the Swiss Schnidejoch pass has uncovered tools and clothing dating even before the iceman. The preliminary report (PDF file) is available online, but because no mummy was found, it was not reported as widely as it should have been. In occasion of the August 2008 conference in Berne finally the news went mainstream (this and most related news erroneously report that Oetzi had been found in an Austrian glacier, but it was proven that he had actually been found in Italy, where the iceman currently rests). An interesting video report from Swiss TV channel Schweizer Fernsehen can be found online at the time of this post; it is in German but contains clear shots of the artefacts found. The artefacts are currently being studied at the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Berne. Research by the centre made the cover page of Nature in May (Volume 453, Number 7193) with papers focusing on gases trapped in ice from Alpine glaciers and what they reveal on long-term (ancient) climate change. The preliminary report and the recent conference also focused very much on climate change, perhaps as much as archaeology. I did not attend the conference and anybody who participated is warmly invited to add a comment to this page. From the information that I have on the conference, I can add that in addition to reports on what has been found so far and warnings on possible further discoveries, there were also reports from Scandinavia (especially Norway) and Alaska (e.g. evidence of Alpine hunting in Yukon). Many reports emphasised that during the Neolithic the world was warmer and areas now covered by glaciers were exposed and frequented by ancient people, who were not scared by the altitude or difficulties in living on mountainous territories.

I would like to add some observations, probably obvious to those attending the conference, but missing from the news reports. The fast melting of natural ice is clearly expanding our archaeological knowledge with finds that could only survive if preserved in ice. As a result, glaciers have returned artefacts (and one body) that could only be preserved in that particular environment, and can only survive in a similar environment. Although the researches tell us that the newly exposed patches of terrain had been frozen only for the shortest amount of time in geological terms and therefore it is untrue to fear that Earth is changing to something never seen before by humans, there are genuine concerns. The areas that are being cleared by glaciers and ices on any summer can be enormously vast and scarcely populated or frequented. Even if the melting is only temporary, just a few months, the damage to possible artefacts, archaeological contexts and soft tissues can be devastating given the nature of what is being preserved in ice. Geologists and climatologists also share the same concern: if a bubble of gas trapped in ice for thousands of years is suddenly released in the atmosphere, its scientific value will be lost forever, and the formation of new ice will not change anything. Are archaeologists and geologists ready for the challenge? Probably not, especially when considering that the water from melting glaciers and sea ice will eventually change the morphology of terrains far from the actual location of glaciers and icy seas: ancient landscapes scarcely modified in the last few thousand years might change abruptly and inexorably.

Archaeologists, and all researchers are also humans, and a fast changing environment will prove a challenge to them as much as to any other human. The debate on climate change has been very much a blaming game so far: who is guilty? Is it humanity with its careless pollution or nature for some ineluctable phenomenon? And if climate change is occurring will this spell the end of humanity? So far we know that human pollution is at the very least not helping in preserving the current climate and we also know that a warmer world might not be necessarily “new” or “worse” for humanity. Archaeologists and geologists can say a lot on this. But then there is the problem of readiness. Do we know what to do to prepare ourselves for climatic and environmental changes that will become permanent (at least for many generations to come), should this happen? We have already seen that from the point of view of archaeologists even a temporary change matters, and yet, is there any plan to deal with this available? The short answer is no, and for this reason an interdisciplinary conference as the one organised in Berne is particularly important. It is not about associating current research with a hot topic of broader relevance, it is about protecting the heritage we assume could be out there. Archaeologists have the chance to spearhead the formulation of scientifically founded plans to cope with environmental changes, albeit on a niche problem. But someone has to start somewhere, and after so many dry debates on climate change, we need plans to ensure that if a change will occur, it will be as gentle as possible (human pollution need to be reduced in key areas, especially in this moment), and everybody is prepared. Losing heritage and a scientific goldmine of ancient gases is not the best of the starts: if scientists end up unprepared, what will be of the larger population?

We will continue to be fascinated by new research on the 1991 finds associated with Oetzi, as well as with studies on his body. And new finds from icy lands and seas will certainly pop-up with increased frequency as old ices melt and more researchers become fascinated by ice, the research opportunities it offers and the relevancy of its studies for the current world. There is no doubt that most of these discoveries have changed, and will change deeply our perception and knowledge of the ancient world. Yet, we should never forget that archaeology is destructive, all what is known comes from contexts that have been irremediably destroyed. So, we should never forget that for every fortuitous discovery from glaciers, another context will have been irremediably destroyed before scientists were ready.