Four friends were slowly making their way across the high altitude rocky terrain while hunting reindeer in Oppland, Norway. One noticed a rusty object sticking out of the rocks. Curiosity took over and he sped up to reach the spot, where he soon found himself in front of an impressive-looking sword. After releasing the sword from its rocky hold, the friends decided that it didn’t look like anything modern, so they headed back down the mountain with their treasure to consult a local archaeologist.
Detail of the Viking Age sword found in Oppland, Norway. Source: Secrets of the Ice
That archaeologist, and also another in Dagbladet, confirmed that the sword wasn’t made recently. In fact, archaeologist Espen Finstad told Dagbladet news that the sword was a Viking Age relic created in the 900s AD.
Finstad is also the chief editor of Secrets of the Ice, a group of glacier archaeologists working in the same region where the Viking Age sword was found. Realizing the importance to return quickly to the site, the Secrets of the Ice team spoke with the Museum of Cultural History and the National Park authorities.
Einar Åmbakk, who discovered the sword, one of his hunting trip friends, a local metal detectorist, a local archaeologist, and two members of the Secrets of the Ice team got themselves ready for a brisk three hour walk back up the mountain to reach the location where the sword was found.
Einar Åmbakk holding the sword, just moments after it was discovered. (Einar Åmbakk)
In their report on the Viking Age sword, Secrets of the Ice described the context in which the sword was found:
“The find spot is in a scree-covered area with traces of permafrost movement, situated at 1640 m [5380 ft.] above sea level. Einar Åmbakk told us that the sword was lying with the hilt down between the stones and half of the blade sticking out. He had seen the blade and pulled it out. Only then did he understand that he had found a sword.”
They go on to write that the sword was probably found in its original position, or had perhaps slid between the stones; it’s unlikely that permafrost movement of the stones had pushed it to the surface.
Secrets of the Ice wrote, “The preservation is probably due to a combination of the quality of the iron, the high altitude and the mostly cold conditions. For most of the year, the find spot would have been frozen over and covered in snow.”
The Viking sword, dated to c. AD 850-950. (Espen Finstad, Secrets of the Ice/ Oppland County Council)
The group surveyed and used a metal detector to cover an area of 20 meters (65 ft.) around the sword’s discovery location. No indications of human remains, the sword grip cover of bone, wood or leather (which would have not been preserved in those conditions anyway), nor any other artifacts were found. Thus, there is a mysterious air about the sword and how it came to be left in such a desolate location.
Secrets of the Ice suggest a possible, though still curious, explanation:
“This could suggest that the person who left behind the sword was lost, maybe in a snow blizzard. It seems likely that the sword belonged to a Viking who died on the mountain, perhaps from exposure. However, if that is indeed the case, was he traveling in the high mountains with only his sword? It is a bit of a mystery… As it is now, his remains are long gone, and only the sword bears witness to the drama that happened here more than one thousand years ago.”
‘Viking Across the Land of the Dead Giants.’ (Jean-Michel Trauscht)
The Viking sword is certainly an intriguing find, but it is not the only example of well-preserved artifacts being found at high altitude in that area. Almost one year ago, in October 2016, Ancients Origins reported on another discovery made by the Secrets of the Ice team - a number of arrowheads found in the melting glacier on the mountain Kvitingskjølen in southern Norway’s Jotunheimen range.
Some of the arrowheads have been dated to between 900-1050 AD based on the types of arrows and techniques used in their creation. However, additional evidence suggests other points may be much older. As Espen Finstad said, “The oldest finds here are around 6000 years old. Which means that there’s been hunting here for at least that long.”
So far, the Secrets of the Ice project website says that 49 glaciers and ice patches in Oppland have revealed artifacts. Hunting tools, transport equipment, textiles, leather and clothing have all been recovered by the archaeologists. Moreover, zoological material has also been found in the form of antler, bone, and dung.
Although the receding glaciers may seem to make the discovery of the arrows and other lost or discarded artifacts easier, the lack of an ice covering also presents a problem - without the protection of the ice, artifacts are exposed to the elements. The race against time and the weather means that the glacier archaeologists must try to work quickly but thoroughly to save as much as they can.
Top Image: The Viking Age sword found in Oppland, Norway. (Source: Youtube Screenshot)
By Alicia McDermott