Hikers and mountaineers are stumbling on mysterious ancient objects in the Swiss Alps, and their discoveries are keeping archaeologists busy.

From the Iron Age to the Ancient Romans to the Middle Ages, people traveled across the Alps's icy mountain passes with cows, mules, oil, wine, skis, weapons, and more.

Their lost or abandoned belongings are now surfacing as the mountains' glaciers melt, revealing clues about past civilizations and eras.

Archaeologists gave Business Insider an inside look at some of their most mysterious and most revealing discoveries.

Melting glaciers in the Swiss Alps are revealing objects that humans have left behind over the ages.

blue gloved hands hold a small wooden sculpture of a human with figure with a flat expression and no arms atop a long wooden stake
This Iron Age statuette is one of the most mysterious objects to surface on Switzerland's melting glaciers. (Morgan McFall-Johnsen)

Switzerland has more glaciers than any other European country, and they're receding quickly as global temperatures rise. In 2022 and 2023, the country lost 10% of its total glacier volume, according to the Swiss Academy of Sciences.

People who find unique artifacts lying on the ice sometimes take them as keepsakes.

This wooden statue, for example, hung on a mountaineer's living room wall for nearly 20 years before museum curator Pierre-Yves Nicod saw an old email about it and reached out.

archaeologist wearing glasses black and white striped shirt and blue medical gloves holds a wooden armless human figure
Pierre-Yves Nicod shows off a mysterious wooden figure recovered from a melting glacier in the Alps. (Morgan McFall-Johnsen)

The mountaineer had found the statue soaked in meltwater in 1999 and wiped it down with modern cleaning products, which could have damaged the ancient object.

Still, after he donated it in 2018, archaeologists managed to date the wood to the 1st or 2nd century BC – the Iron Age.

As the ice melts and discoveries accelerate, archaeologists in the town of Sion collect these objects for research.

The Valais History Museum sits atop a steep hill towering in the center of town. It's at the forefront of the new field of glacial archaeology. The museum has even sent its artifacts on a traveling glacial archaeology exhibit.

side by side images show a quaint swiss town spread below in a valley surrounded by mountain peaks beside a small walled castle on a rocky hill
The Valais History Museum is inside an old chateau atop a rocky hill in the middle of town. (Morgan McFall-Johnsen)

The archives, where additional artifacts are kept and studied, are in a discrete building in a different part of town. Glacial findings are hidden in a giant freezer in the basement and rooms full of bins.

In the museum's archives, researchers are studying new objects closely.

Findings from glaciers are revealing more about human history and ancient economies in the region.

But it's a challenge. Up on the glacier, there's often nothing else associated with the artifact. There are no structures, roads, ancient cities, or other objects that can offer clues about an artifact's origins or purpose.

"It's one of the difficulties of glacial archaeology that we find these objects in the ice, and therefore out of all archaeological context," Nicod said.

Business Insider spoke with Nicod in French and translated his words into English.

Some discoveries are total mysteries, like all these sticks.

long broken up sticks laid out and labeled on three tables in front of filing cabinets with more bins of sticks in the background
Researchers were processing all these sticks from one col when BI visited their archives. (Morgan McFall-Johnsen)

All these sticks come from the same pass, or "col," between mountain peaks. Since that's far above the tree line, the sticks wouldn't be there unless humans brought them.

Some of the sticks date to the time of the Romans, who used the Celtics as guides over the glaciers and through the Alps, according to Romain Andenmatten, a local archaeologist. He thinks the Celtics used sticks to mark the passage.

But the archaeologists were still working on radiocarbon dating the sticks. And they continue to find more sticks each season when they visit the glacier.

"We go back, we go back, and we still find wood," Nicod said. "This is really a research in progress."

Archaeologists still aren't sure what the little wooden statue was for, either.

wooden human figure with no arms and a flat almost frowning expression with its head about the size of the palm of a blue medical gloved hand holding its head
Nicod thinks the statue could be a religious totem, but it's hard to say. (Morgan McFall-Johnsen)

Maybe when people walked across the col, they placed this object there for "divine protection," Nicod speculated. Or maybe it marked a border. Maybe someone simply lost it on their long mountain trek.

Like the statue, many glacier artifacts are organic materials — wood, plant materials, leather — things that don't survive well at lower altitudes where they aren't frozen.

That means artifacts like these are not common in archaeological digs. They don't have analogs in ancient cities or tombs — places that provide the context to figure out an item's purpose.

In the case of this statue, "We have no comparison," Nicod said.

Other discoveries, like these valuable belongings of a 17th-century man, shed light on the ancient Alps economy.

skull cap small bones rusty knives dagger sword coins broken pistol and worn leather shoes spread out on a grey background
A selection of items recovered from the site where a wealthy traveler was frozen in the ice. (© Valais History Museum, Sion; Michel Martinez)

This wealthy traveler is a mystery archaeologists believe they've solved.

Based on his fine clothes, coins from Northern Italy, and weapons from present-day Germany, the archaeologists think he was a merchant. Two mules whose remains were discovered nearby may have been carrying his wares.

Archaeologists suspect the man died in an accident, such as falling into a crevasse in the glacier.

He's a remarkably detailed snapshot of an ancient economy that stretched across the Alps. For centuries, people have braved treacherous cols and glaciers to reach settlements on the other side of the mountains.

Some artifacts could carry long-extinct diseases like the Black Plague.

ancient frozen hoof slightly crumbling on the edge sits in bubble wrap in a person's hand
This hoof comes from the remains of a mule discovered on a melting glacier. (Morgan McFall-Johnsen)

Archaeologists have to be careful and wash their hands after handling the remains of animals or people since they could carry viruses or other microbes that are still viable from being frozen.

Researchers have previously found active viruses frozen in Tibetan glaciers and Arctic permafrost, tens of thousands of years old. Those viruses were prehistoric and suited to plants or amoebas, but there are also more recent, human-adapted pathogens like plague or smallpox that could easily be preserved in the ice.

There are relics in the Alps glaciers from the Middle Ages, including the peak of the Black Plague. The Valais archaeologists haven't had any infections from ancient microbes, Andenmatten told BI, but he doesn't want to become an "archaeological experiment."

"We know that in other regions they have problems with that," Andenmatten said.

For example, thawing permafrost in Siberia released anthrax that infected dozens of people and killed a child in 2016.

Nicod is convinced this wooden artifact is a handle for some kind of tool. It fits perfectly in his hand.

blue gloved hand holding a twisted pale wooden handle
A smooth, twisted piece of wood that Nicod believes to be the handle of an ancient tool. (Morgan McFall-Johnsen)

It's from the Iron Age. Nicod speculated that it was the handle of a hooked blade for cutting back plants. Whatever it is, it's impeccably preserved.

"These are exceptional wooden objects that would have been destroyed elsewhere," he said.

Many objects are vulnerable once the ice around them melts. Archaeologists have to hurry.

woman wearing large backpack with poles sticking out the top crouches on crunchy textured ice looking at a bone laying on the ground with mountain peaks in the background
Archaeologists uncover mule bones on the Theodule glacier in Switzerland, near Zermatt. (© Sophie Providoli)

Once they melt out to the surface of a glacier, leather and other organic materials can be destroyed by the elements and the meltwater in just two years, Andenmatten said.

Some of the wood sticks from the Col Collon, for example, had fungus growing on them. In glacial archaeology, that's an emergency. They had to dry the wood as quickly as possible, then put it in an anoxic (oxygen-deprived) chamber for several weeks to kill the fungus.

"You have to have a rapid response, which is problematic for glacial archaeology," Andenmatten said.

To help save as many objects as possible, the archaeologists created an app for hikers to report their findings.

a long miniature wooden barrel with a hole in the center laid on white wrapping material
Archaeologists believe this small barrel was used to carry wine. (Morgan McFall-Johnsen)

The IceWatcher app is an example of a growing practice of citizen science, where researchers recruit enthusiasts to help them collect information in the field.

Hikers reported about 30 discoveries on the app in its first two years, according to Andenmatten. About half of those discoveries were recent human remains or old bombs, which became the police's responsibility, while the rest have been interesting finds for the archaeologists, he said.

Some objects that melt out may not be found until they've decomposed.

"We say that glacial archaeology is to find a needle in an iceberg," Andenmatten said.

"I think the citizen science is a good solution," he added.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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