Artifacts emerging from melting ancient ice

E. James Dixon, a retired professor of anthropology and an expert in arctic archaeology, gestures during a presentation he gave recently at the Archaeology on Ice exhibit at the Marquette Regional History Center. Dr. Dixon spent part of his career exploring glaciers and other ancient ice patches in Alaska and other areas in search of artifacts for study and preservation.

By Joseph Zyble
It was a bad day for the man traveling high in the Tyrolean Alps, the mountain range that today divides Italy from Austria. He’d been shot in the back by an arrow, and there was evidence that he’d endured other acts of violence before he succumbed to the arrow wound. Though the details of the circumstances surrounding his death can never be known, nor his true identity, the man has become famous around the globe, even making the cover of Time Magazine in 1992.
He was dubbed “Otzi the Iceman,” and though he died over 5,000 years ago, his discovery in the early 1990s has had important ramifications.
Dr. E. James Dixon, a Marquette resident who spent many years of his professional career exploring the melting ice in Alaska searching for ancient artifacts, notes that the discovery of Otzi’s remains brought international attention to the search for artifacts melting from ancient ice.
“In the early 1900s in Scandinavia, primarily in Norway, people began finding artifacts. It was mainly reindeer hunters who found a few tools and things like that, but there was little interest in it until Otzi was discovered.” Dr. Dixon said.
Otzi was the major find; however, more artifacts, including more remains of individuals, began emerging from the ice in other parts of the world.
“There were these occasional finds here and there, then we realized that all this ancient ice is melting around the world,” he said.
Dr. Dixon, a professor emeritus of anthropology from the University of New Mexico, is an expert in arctic archaeology, Paleo-Indian archaeology and other related topics. His Alaska research revealed that certain types of glaciers and patches of ice were more likely to yield artifacts from ancient times. These insights made the search for such artifacts practical.
“The reason it is so exciting, from an archaeological point of view, is because ice preserves organic material very well. In most cases, archaeologists are dealing with stones, ceramics, inorganic material that doesn’t decompose rapidly,” he said. “When we find organic artifacts, they fill in part of the archaeological record we don’t normally see; it’s information from the ancient past we don’t normally see in many archaeological sites.”

This naturalistic reconstruction employed scientific methods to create a model of how “Otzi the Iceman” might have looked when alive. It is on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy. (Photo by Thilo Parg/Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

He also noted that artifacts in high-altitude, high-latitude environments were rare.
“So it tells us something about these ancient people, the way they lived, how they adapted to these environments,” he said.
Dr. Dixon recently shared an exhibit entitled “Archeology on Ice” at the Marquette Regional History Center about the fieldwork and discoveries that he’s been involved in. One feature of the exhibit was a large photograph of the Nabesna Glacier in Alaska, one of hundreds of sites he’s visited. In the presentations he gave at the museum, and in the Science on Tap series at the Ore Dock Brewery, Dr. Dixon noted that while artifacts are discovered emerging from glaciers like Nabesna, other smaller areas called ice patches, are more likely to yield ancient artifacts.
He said that the large valley glaciers flow downslope like rivers, while the static patches of ice also remained year-round but were more stable and can range from a few miles to just a few yards long.
“These perennial patches of ice and snow are productive archaeologically because they attract animals. Caribou mostly, bison, wild horses, sheep—they go to the ice patches in the summertime to thermal-regulate, in other words to cool down, and also to escape the insects,” he said.
Ancient hunters frequented ice patches because they knew their prey were drawn to them.
“When pursuing these animals the hunters would lose arrows, spears, bits of clothing, camping equipment, other tools, and these would get buried in the ice. As the ancient ice is now melting, these long-hidden organic artifacts are emerging. Our focus is to collect them before they disappear,” Dr. Dixon said.
There is urgency in recovering the artifacts. Once an ancient artifact emerges from the ice and is exposed to oxygen and the elements, it decomposes rapidly. Dr. Dixon noted that only a handful of people (perhaps no more than a hundred) are involved in this type of archaeology around the world.
“The problem is that it is very difficult work. It’s conducted in high altitudes and high latitudes. There are seldom roads and the sites are difficult to get to. It’s not glamorous. There are elements of danger and there’s a short window of time each year to do the work. Obtaining the proper permits can also take many months,” he said. “The result is that for every artifact we find there are likely hundreds and maybe thousands that are being lost.”
Some of the most exciting finds Dr. Dixon experienced involved the recovery of hunting artifacts. Replicas of a couple of these finds are included in the exhibit.
“A copper projectile point and arrow shaft with the feathers still preserved was just a spectacular discovery,” he said. “It is beautifully crafted and painted. You might find an arrowhead or something like that, but seldom do you find a complete arrow with feathers and a copper point. The point was annealed from a native copper nugget. It was totally an indigenous product.”
He says he’s amazed at many of the finds to come from the ice.
“We’ve found a lot of bird, small mammals. In one high-altitude place we found a fish—don’t ask me how it got there,” he said. “The permafrost is also melting, and I’ve seen a number of remains of wooly mammoths. The quality of preservation varies. I’ve found a number of mammoth tusks; they’re magnificent.”
While visiting a site in Switzerland, he said that Roman nails were a common find there.
“They came from the Roman soldiers and travelers who would drive the nails through their sandals to grip onto the ice as they traveled over the glaciers,” he said. “Some of the artifacts that come out are so well preserved; it’s just amazing. You could almost pick them up and use them today.”
A variety of artifacts from bygone eras continue to emerge. The remains of other individuals, some several decades old and some several centuries old, have also been discovered in locations around the world.
“There have been old aircraft found in the ice. Huge military fortifications along the Italian-Austrian border from WWI are re-emerging from the ice. It’s mind boggling,” Dr. Dixon said.
He said that beyond archaeology, the study of artifacts preserved in the ice lends itself to a variety of disciplines.
“It’s not just archaeology, it’s the science of climate change, regional eco-logy, animal distributions and behavior, and more,” he said.
As an example he noted that artifacts reveal insights into paleo-ecology.
“Because humans collected all the materials they needed to make these artifacts—wood, bark, feathers, sinew, hide—all these things they collected from their environment, it gives us a good idea of the regional paleo-ecology,” he said. “Many of the arrow feathers are from birds of prey, so we can tell there were eagles and hawks in the area at that time. There’s much to be learned from these artifacts.”
Using radiocarbon dating, researchers are able to confidently date artifacts that are recovered, and this allows them to date the age of the ice too.
“Each item is dated, and we’re getting a fine look at how old the artifacts are. We can tell how old the ice is that is melting now, and we can see that it is older and older ice that’s melting,” he noted.
Dr. Dixon would like to see more vibrant research done in this field and a greater effort to retrieve ancient artifacts.
“This is an irreplaceable part of our heritage, and once it emerges from the ice and decomposes, it will be lost forever. We’ll never again have these insights into the past and the ability to interpret it in ways that are important to us,” he said.
Dr. Dixon’s exhibit wrapped up at the Marquette Regional History Center in December and is now on display at the Yellowstone National Park’s Heritage and Research Center in Gardiner, Montana.

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