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Racing the thaw

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Science  10 Oct 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6206, pp. 157-159
DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6206.157

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Summary

The warming climate has spurred a miniboom in archaeology, as melting alpine ice releases a trove of exquisitely preserved artifacts. Frozen for millennia, clothing and leather are intact and supple; Stone Age arrowheads still bear the resin used to haft them. In Norway this summer, archaeologists and glaciologists scoured the edges of melting ice patches, using a helicopter to reach remote mountainous sites. In less than a month, they found nearly 400 objects, ranging from a complete horse skull to a Viking walking stick and Stone Age arrows, as well as still-pungent piles of ancient reindeer and horse dung. The haul makes Norway ground zero for ice melt archaeology today, but in the past 20 years rising temperatures have exposed frozen artifacts worldwide, including Ötzi, the Stone Age mummy discovered in the Alps in 1991. Archaeologists are working to build a specialty from these frozen finds, with papers, conferences, and a new journal that debuts in November. The discoveries encompass a wide swath of Europe's history, from the time of hunter-gatherers to that of medieval travelers on skis. In the short term, the priority is to rescue fragile artifacts quickly. But already, researchers are beginning to use them to understand how people in the icy parts of the globe dealt with past climate change.