Melting Ice Reveals Lost Viking Highway's Secrets

Researchers survey the edge of the melting ice in the pass area at Lendbreen. Johan Wildhagen, Palookaville.

Vikings may have captured our imagination with their larger-than-life exploits, but it's easy to forget they were also a practical people. They built sensible settlements, engaged in trade and only occasionally indulged in psychoactive drugs before battle.

They also traveled, sometimes in iconic langskips, sometimes by road.

Back in 2011, archaeologists first discovered a lost highway littered with Viking artifacts — sleds, horseshoes, walking sticks, a 1,700-year old sweater and heap after heap of fossilized horse dung.

But now archaeologists have discovered so much more. They've published new research describing hundreds of items that have since been found along the mountain pass: mittens, shoes, parts of sleds, bones from packhorses.

An ancient viking mitten.
This mitten made from different pieces of woven fabric was found in the pass area at Lendbreen. It's radiocarbon-dated to the 9th century. Johan Wildhagen, Palookaville

It likely would have remained hidden forever had the ice not rapidly begun melting, revealing all that roadside Viking litter.

It paints a picture of a well-trodden highway that skirted the Lomseggen mountain ridge, connecting travelers to trading hubs at higher altitudes — and those all-important summer pastures.

The highway wends its way over the Lendbreen ice patch in Norway's Jotunheim Mountains, about 200 miles north of Oslo.

A small viking knife recovered from Lendbreen.
A small iron knife with a birchwood handle was found just below the pass area at Lendbreen. It has been radiocarbon-dated to the 11th century. Espen Finstad/secretsoftheice.com

"The pass was at its busiest during the Viking Age around 1000 A.D., a time of high mobility and growing trade across Scandinavia and Europe," study co-author James Barrett, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, tells Smithsonian magazine. "This remarkable peak in use shows just how connected even a very remote location was to wider economic and demographic happenings."

Elling Utvik Wammer holding a skull from a viking packhorse.
Researcher Elling Utvik Wammer holds a skull from an unlucky packhorse that did not make it across the ice. The skull was radiocarbon-dated to c.1700, making it the earliest-dated find from the pass. Espen Finstad/secretsoftheice.com

Today, it's essentially a highway to nowhere. The Lendbreen ice patch towers over the tree line, only accessible by helicopter. But that too may be changing, as a warming climate melts away the once impenetrable shield.

A road 'lost to memory'

Using radiocarbon dating, researchers peg the highway's origins to about the year 300. At the time, heavy snow cover would have padded the sharp rocks underfoot, they note. Trading posts likely sprang up along the nearby Otta River. The road likely thrived for many more centuries.

"The decline of the Lendbreen pass was probably caused by a combination of economic changes, climate change and late medieval pandemics, including the Black Death," study co-author Lars Pilø explains in a press statement. "When the local area recovered, things had changed, and the Lendbreen pass was lost to memory."

An ancient viking horseshoe
A beautifully preserved horseshoe that melted out of the ice in the lower part of Lendbreen in 2018. The shape dates it to the 11th to the mid-13th century. A small part of the hoof was still attached to the other side of the shoe. Espen Finstad/secretsoftheice.com

At some point, the highway may have been consumed by ice and snow, an event that was likely pivotal in preserving those artifacts.

"The preservation of the objects emerging from the ice is just stunning," study co-author Espen Finstad of the Glacier Archaeology program, tells Heritage Daily. "It is like they were lost a short time ago, not centuries or millennia ago."

The upper part of the Lendbreen ice patch after the big melt in 2019.
The upper part of the Lendbreen ice patch after the big melt in 2019. The surface of the ice is covered with horse dung. Espen Finstad/secretsoftheice.com

For archaeologists, the Lendbreen ice patch seems like a gift from the ancient past. But it's alarming that it's unwrapping itself so rapidly.

"Global warming is leading to the melting of mountain ice worldwide, and the finds melting out of the ice are a result of this," Pilø tells Gizmodo. "Trying to save the remains of a melting world is a very exciting job — the finds are just an archaeologist's dream — but at the same time, it is also a job you cannot do without a deep sense of foreboding."