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Keywords:

  • archaeology;
  • glaciology;
  • climate change;
  • global warming;
  • Switzerland

Abstract

During the hot summer of 2003, reduction of an ice field in the Swiss Alps (Schnidejoch) uncovered spectacular archaeological hunting gear, fur, leather and woollen clothing and tools from four distinct windows of time: Neolithic Age (4900 to 4450 cal. yr BP), early Bronze Age (4100–3650 cal. yr BP), Roman Age (1st–3rd century AD), and Medieval times (8–9th century AD and 14–15th century AD). Transalpine routes connecting northern Italy with the northern Alps during these slots is consistent with late Holocene maximum glacier retreat. The age cohorts of the artefacts are separated which is indicative of glacier advances when the route was difficult and not used for transit. The preservation of Neolithic leather indicates permanent ice cover at that site from ca. 4900 cal. yr BP until AD 2003, implying that the ice cover was smaller in 2003 than at any time during the last 5000 years. Current glacier retreat is unprecedented since at least that time. This is highly significant regarding the interpretation of the recent warming and the rapid loss of ice in the Alps. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.