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New frontiers, from the highlands to the deep sea

by Sydney Smith
September 1, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 29


Retreating ice spills secrets

An arrow artifact rests on rocks in the icy Norwegian highlands.
Credit: Glacier Archaeology Program
Icy artifacts: The team used lukewarm water to tenderly thaw the still-frozen front end of this circa 500 CE arrow.

Thanks to climate change, glacial archaeology is a burgeoning field. It involves rescuing artifacts, the past’s secrets, as they melt out of high-mountain ice. You might call it a new icy frontier.

Each year, from August through September—peak melt season, as hikers may know—a group of hardy archaeologists and trusted helpers based in Innlandet, Norway, makes a strenuous and chilly trek into the Norwegian highlands for a project called Secrets of the Ice. The team backpacks to remote areas, sometimes enlisting pack horses to carry equipment but otherwise toting it themselves. The group uses Everest-rated camping gear, wears crampons, and watches vigilantly for blizzards.

While surveying, team members walk back and forth for hours—at times near 2,000 m elevation at a 30-degree slope over loose rocks, says Lars Pilø, archaeologist and codirector of Secrets of the Ice.

But it’s all part of the thrill of expedition.

Over the years, the team has made incredible finds. These include many arrows, the oldest dating back 5,700–6,200 years; a walking stick with a runic inscription; a 3,300-year-old complete bow; a well-preserved pair of prehistoric skis; a 1,600–1,800-year-old tunic; a woven mitten; and even ancient horse dung.

Such discoveries reveal that humans used high-mountain areas more extensively than originally thought, and these long-lost belongings give us glimpses of their daily life (J. Field Archaeol. 2021, DOI: 10.1080/00934690.2021.2012330).

Pilø tells Newscripts that his favorite find was a “small, blunt arrow, only 26 cm long” dating to 600 CE. The arrow was most likely a toy “lost in the snow in the [mountain] pass by a child, who was practicing bow-and-arrow,” he says. “Such finds really make you feel the connection to people from the past.”

Fieldwork began Aug. 17 this year, and multiple scaring sticks, likely used for reindeer hunting, have already been found. Newscripts wishes the team luck as it searches for human secrets revealed by the retreating ice—before the snow soon begins to fall again.


A name fit for a feather star

An ethereal-looking striped sea creature with many arms in front of a black background.
Credit: Courtesy of McLaughlin, Wilson, and Rouse
Deep-sea magic: P. uskglassi, named after a wizard.

If you’ve ever seen a feather star, you were probably impressed by its otherworldly elegance. When stationary, with its 20 or so arms outspread, it almost resembles a proud peacock. While swimming, each arm sways this way and that—slowly, like the lazy tail of a lounging cat, or swiftly, like the arms of an impassioned conductor.

Is it any wonder, then, that a new species of feather star was named after a magician?

Promachocrinus uskglassi is one of the multiple species recently resolved through DNA sequencing from what was thought to be a single species of feather star (Invertebr. Syst. 2023, DOI: 10.1071/IS22057).

Some of the research team, aboard a ship in the icy Southern Sea, collected the creatures by pulling a net behind the vessel. P. uskglassi was found at a depth of up to 1,157 m, though “we don’t know how deep some of them may go,” says marine biologist Greg W. Rouse, an author of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography–affiliated study.

The new species was named by marine biologist and lead author Emily L. McLaughlin, after the fictional character John Uskglassi, also known as the Raven King, from Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell. The book, one of McLaughlin’s favorites, provides an alternate history of England—one that involves magic.

But why is this character’s name worthy of going into textbooks? As the novel simply explains, “There is nothing else in magic but the wild thought of the bird as it casts itself into the void. . . . Where the harum-​scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of Man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King.”

P. uskglassi may not have a wild thought as it casts itself through the ocean, but the feather star does inspire a tingling sense of wonder that is only deepened by the deciphering of its genetic language.

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