Frozen fauna – Frossen fauna

World history in reindeer remains

By Jørgen Rosvold

While the highlight of the summer season is to go out and discover melted out treasures along the edges of the ice, the best part of the winter season is when the results from the 14C analyses starts ticking in. Only then do you truly realize how valuable your finds were and how important the inland ice has been for animals for thousands of years.

The age of old organic remains can be decided through a method called radiocarbon dating or 14C dating. This is done by measuring the concentration of a radioactive carbon isotope, 14C, which decays at a regular rate after an organism dies. A detailed description of the method can be found here, but the result is that we get a fairly precise calculation of when the animal died, e.g. 2483 years ago ± 49 years. Thus far, we have dated more than 100 animal remains from glaciers and snow patches in Scandinavia and documented a continuous presence of animals on the ice for more than 4000 years. We don’t know yet how far back we might be able to stretch this timeline as the ice continues to melt and more finds appear. Finds from similar sites in Yukon have revealed more than 9000 year old remains!

Bone remains of a reindeer that died on the snow patch in the mid 1970s, at the same time as the Vietnam war was drawing towards its end. Left photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum. Right photo: Wikimedia Commons


While the black death spread across Europe in the mid 14th century, a large buck shed one its huge antlers on the ice. As the plague killed off large parts of the Norwegian human population, the reindeer herds might have experienced easier times with less hunting activities. Left photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum. Right drawing: “The plague on the stairs” by Theodor Kittelsen.


Sometime during the reign of King Olaf II Haraldson (St. Olaf), during the late Viking Age, the shoulder blade of a young reindeer was deposited in the ice. The bone show gnaw marks from a carnivore and is likely the result of wolverine predation or scavenging. The late Viking Age was a period of heavy reindeer exploitation, through the use of large scale trapping systems. Left photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum. Right painting: “The death of St. Olaf” by Peter Nicolai Arbo.


One late summer in the early 8th century AD the antlers of a reindeer had stopped growing. The animal then rubbed off some the velvet on a nearby ice patch. Unaware of the large-scale building of stone monuments and human sacrifice going on far away during the height of the Classic Mayan period, the animal was preparing for the rut. Left phot: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum. Right photo: Jørgen Rosvold.


This antler was shed on the ice about 2200 years ago. Meanwhile, in ancient China the emperor Qin Shi Huang initiated the building of the Great Wall to protect his country from the northern tribes. Left photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum. Right photo: Wikimedia Commons


Our oldest bone thus far is around 4400 years old and is a perfectly preserved phalanx (toe bone) from an adult reindeer. The bone show no cutmarks or signs of gnawing, and still contains marrow. The animal that the bone belongs to, was alive around the time that the great pyramids of Giza and the Stonehenge in England were being built. Left photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum. Right photo: Wikimedia Commons

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