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(www.oeschger.unibe.ch/schnidejoch)

Often finds are made over a number of years before being presented to the academic community and the public, making it difficult to include them in a list of one year's most important discoveries. That's the case with artifacts found as the glacier in Schnidejoch pass in the Swiss alps continues to recede. In early September, archaeologists and climate scientists met in Bern to discuss global warming. Among the finds described were more than 300 objects dating as far back as the Neolithic found at the Schnidejoch pass. It was in 2003 that two hikers there noticed what looked like an odd piece of wood, but turned out to be a birch-bark quiver. Apparently, some 5,000 years ago a person clad in goat-leather pants, wearing leather shoes, and armed with a bow and arrows perished while crossing through the pass. The finds are earlier than the famous Ice Man Otzi, whose frozen body was found in 1991, but the human remains did not survive at Schnidejoch. What is intriguing about the site is that the artifacts--including a Bronze Age pin, Roman coins and a fibula (dress pin), and objects from the early Middle Ages--found there correspond to warm periods. They may represent items lost when the pass was open to travelers. The fact that the wood and leather artifacts from the earliest period have not rotted away, however, suggests that the glacier today has retreated more than ever since then.

Archaeologists are worried about a worldwide threat to frozen sites (see "Global Warming Peril"). In recent years glaciers have yield the 550-year-old frozen remains of a Native American hunter in northwestern British Columbia, Inca sacrificial victims in South America, and members of a World War II aircraft crew in the Sierra Nevada of California. Of particular concern are frozen left by nomadic peoples of the first millennia B.C. and A.D. in the Altai Mountains close to the Mongolian, Russian, Kazakh, and Chinese borders. Frozen kurgans (burial mounds) there include bodies of nobles, some with elaborate tattooing, and those of sacrificed individuals and horses, along with well preserved wood, cloth, leather artifacts. This threat will be the focus of a feature story in the upcoming March/April issue of ARCHAEOLOGY.

More Top Discoveries of 2008

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