Melting Snow Patches Reveal Neolithic Archery

By Callanan, Martin | Antiquity, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Melting Snow Patches Reveal Neolithic Archery

Callanan, Martin, Antiquity



Snow patches are perennial accumulations of snow and ice, found in the mountains of Norway and other regions of the world at high altitude or latitude. Continually exposed to the varying effects of weather and climate, they are dynamic contexts, prone to constant change and development. On hot summer days, animals such as reindeer, sheep and birds often seek out high-lying snow patches to get some relief from both the heat and from parasitic insects. In the past, this behaviour attracted the attention of hunters who used snow patches as summer hunting grounds. Objects lost or discarded by these hunters are often very well preserved and are discovered when patches melt sufficiently. This chain of events forms the background for snow patch archaeology and the finds described here.

In this paper, a number of Neolithic (4000-1800 BC) artefacts recently discovered from snow patches in central Norway are reported. In 2010 and 2011 fragments of five Neolithic arrows and a Neolithic bow were discovered at two mountain sites. Despite a long tradition of artefact collection from snow patches in the region, these are the oldest snow patch artefacts that have yet been recovered in Scandinavia. The finds are significant for two reasons. First, they offer a rare glimpse into the archery technology of the Neolithic period in Scandinavia. Second, the repeated recovery of organic artefacts from melting snow patches serves as a warning to us of changes that are currently taking place in the alpine landscapes of central Scandinavia.

Background/ setting

The snow patch region in question lies in the mountainous south-western corner of central Norway between 62[degrees] and 63[degrees] N. Here, the mountain complexes of Trollheimen and Dovre meet across a series of valleys converging on the town of Oppdal (Figure 1).

The geology of this area is complex, lying in a contact zone between Cambrosilurian and Precambrian bedrocks to the west and east respectively. The overlying landscape was heavily modified during the last ice age, especially in the west. Furthermore, the area has the character of a borderland with regard to climate. Maritime conditions in the west give way to mildly continental conditions in the east. Vegetation in the area follows elevation gradients from middle boreal vegetation in the valleys up to 700m asl. There follows a belt of sub-alpine birch forest up to c. 1100m asl. Archaeological snow patches are generally found at elevations above 1400m asl within middle and high alpine vegetation zones. Scattered communities of lichen and mosses between areas of bare bedrock and scree are found around the highest-lying snow patches (Moen 1987: 217). The fauna of the region includes herbivores such as reindeer and musk ox as well as carnivores such as wolverine, polar fox, gyrfalcon, rough-legged buzzard and golden eagle.

There is a long-standing tradition of artefact surveying among a group of local volunteer collectors in Oppdal. Regular surveying is carried out on foot and often involves long treks in demanding terrain, frequently in difficult weather conditions. Nonetheless, no fewer than 234 artefacts have been collected in the region from 27 different snow patches in the period 1914-2011 (Callanan 2012; Figure 2).

The material collected comprises arrowheads, shafts and bow fragments as well as other items associated with hunting activities (Farbregd 2009; Callanan 2012). Since 2006, snow patch discoveries have also been made in other parts of Norway, most notably in Oppland County in the inner mountains of southern Norway, where a series of complex sites, mostly from the Iron Age and medieval periods (c. 500 BC-AD 1500) have been identified and surveyed. Moreover, a few Bronze Age artefacts (1800-500 BC) have been recovered, most notably a shoe, a birch bark quiver and more recently a complete bow dated to c. 1300 BC (Finstad & Vedeler 2008; Mimisbrunnr n. …

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