Cold, and desolate, the mountainous landscape in Jotunheimen in Norway offers hardship and tough hikes. Nevertheless, a thousand years ago, a rugged mountain pass was one of the arteries of Viking Age traffic.
For years Norwegian archaeologists have been swarming up and down the old trails on the Lendbreen glacier discovering literally thousand of artefacts left by their ancestors, which had been preserved in the ice and cold.
The adventure began in 2011, when the glacier began to melt revealing centuries-old horse dung and an old iron Age tunic. Since then, the finds have been accumulating – scraps of woollen clothes, a lost mitten, fragments of sleds, horseshoes, walking sticks and weapons. Recent finds (2019)were the remains of a dog with a collar and leash, a wooden tinderbox and a preserved horse snowshoe.
It appears, Lendbreen was one of those important mountain-passes along which travellers, peasants, herders, merchants – and probably bandits and soldiers – moved to get around the tall Lomseggen mountain. From ca. AD 300 – 1000, the pass was used as a major highway during late winter and early summer, when snow would make the transit easier. Later in the Middle Ages, the deterioration of climate and the depopulation due to the Black Death ended the use of the pass.
Tradesmen from afar may have constituted a significant part of the travellers. Hauling wool, reindeer pelts, antlers, cheese and butter from summer farms was probably one of the main reasons for crossing the pass. For example, the archaeologists found a birch bark container packed with raw wool. However the mainstay was likely the seasonal migration between the permanent farms and their summer shearlings, where livestock could graze for part of the year. It appears, the easy way to travel from the upper part of the Ottadalen Valley to the rich summer pastures in the Neto area was by crossing the Lomseggen ridge.
One of the challenges, though, has been to identify the actual trail. The uninitiated might imagine that the pathway ran where the objects had fallen. However, strong winds and not least melting water would have carried the objects apart. Nevertheless, the archaeologists have been able to locate some cairns marking the trail. They even found the ruins of a shelter in the pass offering a respite from the arduous hike of men and animals.
Lost Viking Settlement
This spring, the archaeologists returned to see if they might discover the actual trail and not just the general outline. Hardy and tough, they decided to see what would surface if they just walked in the footsteps of the Vikings. So said, they followed the Lendbreen trail west from the pass to see where it headed. Especially, where the going got rough, they discovered ancient cairns clearly marking out the trail. These led them across the pass and down towards the Neto summer farms, known from the 17th century.
On the way, however, they made an astounding discovery, the ruins of a lost Viking settlement around a 1000 m above sea level. Although the wooden houses had long since rotted away, the foundation stones could be discerned after the juniper and other undergrowth had been cleared. Also, excavations revealed thick layers of charcoal from hearths placed centrally in the houses.
The precise dating of the settlement awaits a scientific analysis.
Crossing the ice: an Iron Age to medieval mountain pass at Lendbreen, Norway
By Lars Pilø, Espen Finstad James H. Barrett
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 April 2020