Sometime between 200 and 500 CE, someone crossing a high mountain pass in Norway discarded a shoe. More than 1,500 years later, an unusually warm summer melted centuries of accumulated snow and ice, revealing the ancient shoe—and an assortment of other objects left behind by ancient and medieval travelers on the snowy mountain trails. Archaeologists with the Secrets of the Ice project recovered the shoe in 2019, finished conserving it in 2021, and recently published a report about the site and the finds.
The report “is for internal archiving only and [is] not published,” Secrets of the Ice co-director Lars Holger Pilø told Ars in an email. “In addition, it is in Norwegian.”
But Pilø and his colleagues recently shared some highlights via the project’s social media and in a conversation with Ars.
High altitude high fashion
The shoe isn’t what you’d expect to find in a high mountain pass. It looks more like a sandal than a hiking boot, with its decorative cutouts and an open, lace-up top that barely reaches the ankle. Far to the south and east, in the Roman Empire, it would have been fashionable footwear; conservator Vegard Vike at the Museum of Culture and History in Oslo, Norway, matched it to a type popular in Roman cities during the 400s and 500s CE (also known as the Iron Age in most of Europe).
“The similarity to footwear within the Roman Empire is striking,” Pilø told Ars in an email. “It tells us that the people living in these geographically remote mountains had a connection to the continent. Roman imports have been found in South Norway previously (especially weapons), but the shoe tells us that ideas and fashion traveled as well.”
This particular piece of Roman fashion traveled to a mountain pass called Horse Ice Patch, 2,000 meters above sea level in the mountains of Western Norway—far beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire even at its peak, but apparently not beyond Rome’s influence. Pilø and his colleagues used the shoe and centuries’ worth of other lost or abandoned items to trace the trails that traders and farmers once trekked through the cold, inhospitable landscape to reach markets or seasonal grazing pastures.
Today, if you just look around Horse Ice Patch, it’s almost impossible to spot the ancient and medieval trails that once converged there. But a closer look reveals objects that still mark the routes people walked long ago.
Near the Iron Age shoe and along the trails in and out of the pass, Pilø and his colleagues found a 2,000-year-old arrowhead made of reindeer antler and etched with a pair of zigzag lines. They’ve also recovered horse manure dating back to the Viking Age (about 800 to 1100 CE), as well as a horseshoe and a horse leg bone from the late Middle Ages. It’s clear that people used the pass for centuries.
“The high mountain passes went out of use mainly because better roads were built in the lowlands from the mid-19th century,” Pilø told Ars.
Before that, trails like the ones that converge at Horse Ice Patch were the only way a farmer in a valley like Skjåk could reach a port town on the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest and deepest fjord. The narrow, uneven trails had to be traversed on foot, leading pack horses; the terrain was too rough and steep for riding, let alone the comforts of sledges or carts.