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Norwegian Archaeologists Uncover 1,300-Year-Old Ski Preserved In Ice

The ski, uncovered with its primitive binding still attached, is the best-preserved prehistoric example to date.

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Back in 2014, a team of Norwegian glacier archaeologists looking for pre-Viking artifacts buried in ice on Mount Digervarden in southern Norway struck gold—or rather, a very old piece of wood.

Under a few inches of fresh snow, the team uncovered a ski that dates back to the pre-Viking-era, preserved in ice for around 1,300 years. How did the research team know it was a ski and not just a long piece of wood? Plugged to the center of the plank was a twisted birch twig and leather strap, evidently a primitive binding.

1,300 Year Old Ski - Secrets of the Ice
Detail of the raised foothold with repairs and preserved bindings. (Photo: Espen Finstad, secretsoftheice.com)

Ever since that discovery seven years ago, the team from the Glacier Archaeology Program in Innlandet, Norway, consistently monitored the Digervarden Ice Patch, hoping to uncover the missing ski of a pair as ice continued to retreat from the area. A second general survey in 2016 didn’t reveal anything new, but this year satellite imagery showed that ice had retreated compared to 2014. So on Sept. 20, archaeologist Runar Hole and his tour companion Bjørn Hessen set out to see what they could find.

Sure enough, the pair found a second ski still stuck in ice just 5 meters from the first ski discovery site. Conditions prevented Hole and Hessen from extracting the ski then, but on Sept. 26, a bigger team set out with ice axes and packing materials to free the ski from the ice.

When they managed to safely pry the ski from the ice, the team was able to determine that the ski was indeed a match for the original ski uncovered in 2014—and it was in even better condition.

Watch: Norwegian Archaeologists Uncover 1,300-Year-Old Ski

“Ever since the first ski melted out seven years ago, we have been hoping and praying that the second ski would melt out,” says Lars Pilø, co-director of Secrets of the Ice, an offshoot of the Glacier Archaeology Program in Innlandet, Norway. “When it happened, the two skis from Mount Digervarden became the best-preserved pair of skis from prehistory.”

1,300 Year Old Ski Secrets of the Ice
The upside of the ski with the tip facing right. A small part of the ski is missing at the back end. The ski is 187 cm long and 17 cm wide. It has a raised foothold with a preserved binding.

Like the first ski, the newly discovered ski is a broad plank featuring a raised foothold with the same type of primitive binding still intact. It measures 187cm long and 17cm wide. The length is on par with the length of skis we still use today, but at 177mm wide, it’s much wider than even the fattest modern powder skis.

Related: These are the best powder skis of the year

While the newly discovered ski is 17cm longer and 2cm wider than the first Digervarden ski discovered in 2014, the archaeologists say this is not unusual and not a reason to doubt the two skis are a pair. After all, skis were handmade with rough tools back then, and the different depths at which the skis were buried in ice could account for some of the differences in dimensions between the two skis.

1,300 Year Old Ski - Secrets of the Ice
The best-preserved pair of skis from prehistory at the Norwegian Mountain Center in Lom. The 2014 ski is exhibited in the showcase, the 2021 ski is lying on top of the showcase, nearest the persons. From left: Mai Bakken, Thea Dalen, Dag Inge Bakke (all Norwegian Mountain Center), Espen Finstad (Secrets of the Ice). (Photo: Olav Tøfte (Norwegian Mountain Center))

“It is an unbelievable find,” says Pilø. “There are quite a number of early skis known from Scandinavia. Most of these have been found in bogs and their preservation varies. Only one, from Mänttä in Finland, had the binding preserved. With the melt-out of the pair of skis from Digervarden, both of which are near complete and have the binding preserved, we are in a much better position to experiment with exact replicas of the skis.”

The new Digervarden find gives experts better clues as to what skis were used for 1,300 years ago. To date, the Digervarden Ice Patch has revealed numerous reindeer hunting artifacts and also ancient cairns in the vicinity of where the skis were found, leading experts to wonder whether skis were primarily used for hunting, or for high mountain transport, or both.

Whatever the case, one thing is for sure: Even 1,300 years ago, people were into skiing, and judging by the width of their planks, they were gunning for deep days.

But Pilø, who works on the frontlines of receding glaciers, issues a sobering reminder that deep days are dwindling: “The mountain ice is melting due to climate change. There will be more finds from the ice in the years to come. Most of the ice in the high mountains will melt away this century. So, great finds, but the background for the melt is not great.”

Follow news and discoveries from the Glacier Archaeology Program in Norway at secretsoftheice.com and on Instagram

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