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Switzerland

In Switzerland, Melting Glaciers Reveal Buried Treasures

Retreating glaciers are liberating bodies and objects lost thousands of years ago and revealing much about the people who once lived in these mountains.

Glaciers receding in the Bernese Alps
Glaciers receding in the Bernese Alps
Xavier Lambiel

BRIG — A skull, a sword, a few bones, a pistol and a small handful of coins. It's all that remains of a man who died around the year 1600 in the region of Zermatt.

After being loaned to an Italian museum, the remains of the so-called "mercenary" are now on exhibit in the town of Swiss town of Brig. Culture Minister Esther Waeber Kalbermatten says they represent "a heritage of international importance," and she encourages mountaineers and hikers to announce their discoveries as soon as they find them as the glaciers continue to shrink.

Ice preserved this man, who never made it past the Theodul Pass, once an important connecting point between Switzerland and Italy. Aged between 20 and 30 and from the Alps, he was traveling with 184 coins and many weapons, including a wheellock pistol, a sword and a left-handed dagger. So far, these objects appear to tell the story of a mercenary returning home with his pay. But the Valais History Museum has published a book that compiles the most recent research on the topic, which actually contradicts this theory.

The mercenary was a rich traveler

Archeologist Sophie Providoli, who directed the book's publication, believes the man wasn't a soldier, but rather a "rich traveler." He wore silk braids and his beard was trimmed. According to Matthias Senn, the former curator of the Swiss National Museum and a weapons specialist, the pistol and the dagger were more "stylish accessories" than weapons of war. Dispersed by the melting glacier, the bones and objects were found progressively by a Zermatt geologist between 1984 and 1990.

The "Theodul mercenary" and his belongings are the oldest glacial remains in Europe after the famous "Ötzi," a male body that dates back more than 5,000 years. Warm winds released Ötzi from the Hauslabjoch glacier in 1991. The body was found by hikers at more than 3,200 meters in altitude, at the border between Austria and Italy. Armed with a bow and an ax, the man was in all likelihood killed by an arrow in the back during the Chalcolithic period, then became mummified in ice. The discovery marked the beginning of glacial archeology.

An auspicious period

Since 1850, temperatures have been rising faster in the Alps, and glaciers have been retreating. When they do, they expose forgotten, long frequented paths that ice gradually obstructed. "We're living an auspicious period of archeology," says Philippe Curdy, curator of the Prehistory and Great Age Department of the Sion History Museum.

At the Schnidejoch Pass, which made it possible to travel through Bern and the Valais canton, the 2003 heat wave melted an ice field. By chance, hikers found a bow and arrows that were more than 7,000 years old, 1,500 years older than Ötzi. Some 900 objects were then unearthed on the site, dating back to the Neolithic, Bronze or Iron ages, from the Roman era of the Middle Ages.

Digital archeology

Between 2011 and 2014, a Swiss National Science Foundation research project called "Frozen Passes and Historical Remains" made it possible to systematically explore 13 sites, all located between 3,000 and 3,500 meters in altitude. Geographers identified and modeled the most likely historical crossing points, which were then cross-checked by historians based on available archives. Now archeologists explore these sites at the beginning of every autumn, when the snow melts. At the Theodul Pass, they discovered tools that date from the Middle Ages and polished wood that goes back to the Roman era.

Ice makes it possible to preserve organic matter, but its melting leads to a rapid deterioration of the remains. Fabrics disintegrate from heat and humidity, and foraging animals disperse the bones. "It's information that's disappearing," says Curdy, who is eager to intensify his investigation.

Geographer Ralph Lugon predicts that ice will have completely disappeared from some of the identified sites by 2080. "The time during which glaciers spit out their treasures will be short and unique," he says.

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