Hunting the Mountainous Snowdrifts of the Past

The leather-clad hunter moves with quiet purposeful steps through the vast mountainous area opposite the small mountain village of Oppdal. He has spotted a herd of reindeer on top of a snowdrift. Cautiously he slips within shooting range, places the arrow on the bow, draws, aims and shoots. It misses completely, with the arrow piercing the snow next to the herd. Strange, he wonders. Perhaps the result of shoddy craftsmanship while making the steering feathers? He plucks another arrow from his quiver and shoots, falling short once again. The wind direction is favourable, the herd has not discovered him, and he has plenty of time. He takes cover behind a rock and fires another arrow. This time it finds the target. Content, the hunter begins his journey home with the heavy catch; a large reindeer buck. He does not care to look for the wasted arrows. He has plenty and can always make more.

Several thousand years later, a hunting party dressed in warm wool, windproof Gore-Tex and hiking boots traverse the same mountains. Vigilant eyes are fixed on the ground, scouring the landscape by the old snowdrifts, which reindeer still migrate to during the summer in order to cool off and escape pesky insects. They are not looking for the animals. They are in search of the ancient hunters and their gear, like scattered arrows and broken bows. They do not search haphazardly. They know where to look. They can go for days without finding anything, but suddenly the old hunting arrow appears in front of them, right where it fell after missing its prey several thousand years ago. It is completely intact, with shaft and steering feathers, as if it were crafted yesterday. Time is frozen. For a moment, past and present converge. We connect with the ancient hunter, as if he were standing right there.

The Trondheim Science Museum contains many findings from such drifts, which over the years have been found by people wandering the Oppdal mountains. The first arrow shaft was submitted as early as 1914. Since then, the collection of old hunting tools, especially weapons for deer hunting, has increased significantly as a result of warm summers and winters with little snow. A warmer climate causes the ice in the up to 6-7000 years old drifts to melt. From the melting ice, thousands of well-preserved artefacts from ancient mountain hunters and trappers pop up. For centuries nature has preserved them well, protected by the ice and cold. Right after they surface, they almost appear brand new. But only for a moment. It does not take many days of open air before arrow shafts with steering feathers, wooden bows or other organic materials disintegrate and disappear. It is important to be there when the snow melts and the findings surface, ready to take care of them properly and preserve them for posterity. Snowdrifts are treasure troves, but the melting creates a race against time. In Oppland alone, the melting ice has revealed thousands of artefacts in the last few years. Instead of relying on incidental findings, the search in the snowdrifts has now been well organised, in order to save unique artefacts.

The snowdrift findings show that our ancestors have hunted reindeer in the mountains as far back as the Stone Age, more than 5,000 years ago. Findings are varied and plentiful, ranging from hunting tools like arrows with shafts, arrowheads, bows and hundreds of scare poles from the organised trapping, to a small knife with wooden handles, walking sticks from the Viking Age and the remains of hunters’ gloves and shoes.

An old shoe? Way up in the mountains next to glaciers and snowdrifts. The shoe is from the Bronze Age, more than 3,500 years ago. A single shoe sized 36-37, large enough for a female foot, an adolescent or a small man. Thousands of years ago, a man or woman lost their shoe during the reindeer hunt up in the mountains. Why? It must have been cold. He or she must have been pretty annoyed. The findings from the melting snowdrifts provide glimpses of an intriguing past.