Iron Age Skis Emerge From Melting Snow

By John Roach

Some 1,300 years ago, a pair of skis were lost or abandoned high on a windswept mountain in southern Norway. There, patches of perennial snow and ice are shrinking. That’s how the 1,300-year-old skis were found.

The finding sheds light on the history of skiing and serves as a reminder that mountain ice and glaciers are being lost due to global climate change, according to Lars Holger Pilo, a co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program in Norway’s Innlandet County.

Before the warming world took a toll on mountain ice and glaciers, archaeologists pieced together the history of skiing from equipment found preserved in bogs and wetlands and depicted in rock carvings and paintings, he explained.

“Now we have well preserved remains of skis, even with the binding preserved, found where they were used,” he told me in an email exchange. “We also now have evidence that Bronze Age and Iron Age people were using the high mountains in the winter, something we did not know beforehand.”

Pilo and his colleagues discovered the first ski in this pair of skis in 2014 in a melting patch of ice on Digervarden Mountain. They thought a match was possible and kept an eye on the ice. When satellite imagery showed patch shrinkage this summer, a crew went to investigate. They found the second ski.

Ski freed from the ice
The ski is completely freed from the ice. It is lying with the underside up and the tip towards left. Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com

A full account of the recovery is available on Secrets of the Ice, a website maintained by the glacier archaeologists. The story involves a reconnaissance mission followed by a snowstorm, and a recovery mission aided by GPS technology, ice axes and gas cookers.

The new ski is 187 cm long and 17 cm wide, which is wider than even the fattest powder skis sold today. A binding made of twisted birch and a leather strap held the skier’s foot to the ski. The foothold of the new ski shows evidence of repairs, suggesting it was well used and valuable.

“The Iron Age skier did not easily discard a good ski, even if they had to repair it,” Pilo said.

While the newly discovered ski and the one recovered in 2014 almost certainly make a pair, the skis are an imperfect match. The new ski is 17 cm longer and 2 cm wider than the one discovered in 2014, for example. It’s possible they have individual histories of wear and repair before they were used together.

Pilo and his colleagues tout them as the “best-preserved prehistoric pair of skis in the world.”

Given the value of the skis, the archaeologists suspect the skier lost them in an avalanche, or a wipe out. Village or family members may have fetched the skier’s body, but the skis remained.

The archaeologists doubt the skier was out just for the thrill of sliding on snow when the skis were lost. Other finds in the area indicate people hunted reindeer there. Route markers indicate a trail used for travel through the mountains.

“The high mountains could be a dangerous and hostile environment in the winter,” Pilo noted. “So, we believe that the skier was up there out of necessity, not leisure. The skier could have been hunting or passing through the area to get somewhere.”

The type of leather-strap heel-binding found on the skis would have added stability and power to the step forward when trudging through the snow and made it easier to steer when skiing downhill, according to a paper that Pilo and his colleagues published in the Journal of Glacial Archaeology in 2018.

As part of that research, the team reconstructed a pair of the Digervarden skis based on the 2014 find and found them fully functional for downhill skiing. Unlike modern skis, the binding does not hold the heel down, making turns by adding weight to one ski or the other difficult, the team reported.

A skier shows the technique from the Chinese Altai Mountains. Photo by Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com.

Rather, the skier may have used a single pole as a rudder, which is what traditional skiers from the Chinese Altai Mountains do today. The glacial archaeologists recruited a traditional skier from Altai to give it a go on the reconstructed skis. They worked well, according to the paper.

The new find fills in the picture of this Iron Age ski scene, according to Pilo.

For example, the new ski includes evidence that the Digervarden skis were not likely lined with fur as the Altai skier suggested was necessary for traction uphill and to control speed on the downhill. The new ski has a furrow on the underside, which would have no function if covered by fur, the archaeologists note.

Pilo hopes more finds from the melting ice patches in Norway will continue to yield insights to these Iron Age skiers, but he knows the clock is ticking. Climate scientists expect more than 90% of mountain ice to melt in Norway by the end of this century. Artifacts deteriorate once melted out and exposed to the air.

“Our focus must be the recovery of the finds from the ice,” he said. “But the dramatic loss of ice just during our 15 years of fieldwork does make an impression.”

Top image: Happy archaeologists admiring the ski. From left: Espen Finstad (Secrets of the Ice) and Julian Post-Melbye (Museum of Cultural History, Oslo). Photo: Andreas Christoffer Nilsson, secretsoftheice.com.