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Open Spaces

Archeologists Race To Find Artifacts Melting Out Of Mountain Ice Fields

Melodie Edwards

We drive for hours on a terrible dirt road to reach the ice patch, but Colorado State University archeology professor emeritus Larry Todd says, heck, this is nothing.

“Today we'll be able to get in the truck and drive for an hour and a half to an ice patch. That's about as close as we can get,” he says. “More often it's, go to the trailhead, load up the horses and pack mules and ride for six to eight hours to get into the area where you can start studying those.”

Todd’s been meaning to get up to this ice patch for a while now but with summers getting hotter and hotter, he says it’s hard to keep up.

“Things are disappearing, deteriorating, being stolen, very rapidly.”

High above timberline, we park the truck and climb out. I can't tell you exactly where we are because of the risk of artifact hunters raiding this site. But I can tell you this much. It's an area where Todd says over 180,000 artifacts have been found in 388 sites.

Todd shows me the way off the ridge to an ice patch.

“We're coming up over the edge of a ridge that snow blows over and drifts down below us here, all winter long,” he says, using a walking stick to stabilize his footing on the steep descent. “And it's these relatively permanent ice patches that can contain some of the perishable materials, the organic artifacts, the bones, the hide, the dung. It's sort of an ecological archive in lots of ways.”

Todd says ice patches are an oasis on the alpine landscape. A water source for thirsty wildlife…and people. We hike down to the base of the ice where a trough has melted out. A good place to look for artifacts. As we pace the edge of the ice, Todd points out a dark layer in it.

“A lot of that's going to be organic material. Some of that's going to be animal dung. And so each one of those layers of animal dung you can radio carbon date, you can look at the plant contents, you can look at the species.” 

Credit Melodie Edwards
Todd says the ice patch is actually bigger this year than in years past, thanks to a heavy snow year. But he says the scar on the ridge above still shows that it's shrunk considerably.

“So as it's melting down,” I ask, “those are getting exposed and washed away and that layer is basically lost?

“Gone, yeah,” Todd says.

But it’s not the poop so much as the people who hunted those animals that Todd is interested in. It was only a few years ago that archeologists started finding proof that prehistoric people had been living above timberline for over 10,000 years, the remnants of whole villages above 11,000 feet.

“This is a harsh environment to live in,” says Todd. “We're above the 2500 meter range which is referred to as the hypoxia zone above which humans just biologically in general aren't adapted to live at. It's stressful for you to be at this elevation. It requires more calories, it requires different sorts of oxygen use.”

The mystery Todd and his colleagues are trying to solve is how did they survive up here? Basket fibers, bison teeth, when these things wash out of the ice: we now have the technology to glean answers from such tidbits.

We continue our search for artifacts around the ice patch’s pond. Many of these ponds are drying up, but here we find a mountain goat wrist bone and some stone tool flecks. Todd tells me to watch for wood, a rare commodity up here that means people probably brought it here as a dart shaft or bow. Getting to that wood quickly after it washes out is critical.

“They're water saturated,” says Todd. “So one of the problems is drying them slowly enough to where they don't just explode as they dry out. You can't just pick it up and take it home and put it on your shelf because you come back to it you've got a bunch of wood fragments.”

Todd says that's why people who find such artifacts shouldn't take them home. They should leave them right where they are and report the finding to an archeologist.

“The place that the artifacts have their most information potential is right where they're found.”

Todd says even archeologists practice catch and release, mapping artifacts precisely where they find them, then leaving them be.

“You can be completely alone in the wilderness and if you have the eyes for it, you can realize you’re part of a socially connected landscape that's been there for millennium,” he says. 

Leaving them for the next guy shows respect not only for the history record, but also to contemporary Native Americans. When we take artifacts, Todd says, “We not only erased them personally and their ancestors from the landscape but then we start erasing their presence.”

And to be finding out about all these people living up at this high elevation at the same time as it's melting away, Todd says, is an awkward position for archeologists.

“I can go from being ecstatic to thinking I need grief counseling within the same day. Look at all this amazing!...but we can't protect it, it's going away, it's lost, it's gone. You get almost speechlessly excited about, look at this! Look at this! Look at this! Most amazing thing I've ever seen! And then that, but how do we protect it?”

He says, the best protection is to leave the artifacts in the ice. But with no easy solution to climate change, Todd plans to keep spending his summers at the foot of ice patches as long as he can still make the journey.

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