New evidence of "Nordic grog" discovered in Scandinavia

15 January 2014 Taylor & Francis


Discovery highlights innovative and complex fermented beverages of northern Europe in the Bronze and Iron Ages.


A blazing fire was not the only thing to keep Bronze and Iron Age Scandinavians warm through long cold winters. From northwest Denmark, circa 1500-1300 BC, to the Swedish island of Gotland as late as the first century AD, Nordic peoples were imbibing an alcoholic “grog” or extreme hybrid beverage rich in local ingredients, including honey, bog cranberry, lingonberry, bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper, birch tree resin, and cereals including wheat, barley and/or rye —and sometimes, grape wine imported from southern or central Europe.


New research published in the Danish Journal of Archaeology examines evidence derived from samples inside pottery and bronze drinking vessels and strainers from four sites in Demark and Sweden. The research proves the existence of an early, widespread, and long-lived Nordic grog tradition, one with distinctive flavors and probable medicinal purposes—and the first chemically attested evidence for the importation of grape wine from southern or central Europe as early as 1100 BC, demonstrating both the social and cultural prestige attached to wine, and the presence of an active trading network across Europe—more than 3,000 years ago.


“Far from being the barbarians so vividly described by ancient Greeks and Romans, the early Scandinavians, northern inhabitants of so-called Proxima Thule, emerge with this new evidence as a people with an innovative flair for using available natural products in the making of distinctive fermented beverages,” notes Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, lead author of the paper. “They were not averse to adopting the accoutrements of southern or central Europeans, drinking their preferred beverages out of imported and often ostentatiously grand vessels. They were also not averse to importing and drinking the southern beverage of preference, grape wine, though sometimes mixed with local ingredients.”


To reach their conclusions the researchers, based at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, obtained ancient residue samples from four sites in a 150-mile radius of southern Sweden and encompassing Denmark. The oldest, dated 1500 – 1300 BC, was from Nandrup in northwestern Denmark, where a warrior prince had been buried in an oak coffin with a massively hafted bronze sword, battle-ax, and pottery jar whose interior was covered with a dark residue that was sampled. A second Danish sample, dated to a later phase of the Nordic Bronze Age from about 1100 – 500 BC, came from a pit hoard at Kostræde, southwest of Copenhagen. A brownish residue filling a perforation of a bronze strainer, the earliest strainer yet recovered in the region, was sampled. A third Danish sample was a dark residue on the interior base of a large bronze bucket from inside a wooden coffin of a 30-year-old woman, dating to the Early Roman Iron Age, about 200 BC, at Juellinge on the island of Lolland, southwest of Kostræde. The bucket was part of a standard, imported Roman wine-set, and the woman held the strainer-cup in her right hand. A reddish-brown residue filling the holes and interior of a strainer-cup, again part of imported Roman wine-set, provided the fourth sample.  Dating to the first century AD, the strainer-cup was excavated from a hoard, which also included a large gold torque or neck ring and a pair of bronze bells, at Havor on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.


According to Dr. McGovern, the importation of southern wine grew apace in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and eventually eclipsed the grog tradition - but never completely.  Many of the ingredients in Nordic grog went on to be consumed in birch beer and as the principal bittering agents (so-called gruit) of medieval beers, before hops gained popularity, and the German purity law (Reinheitsgebot) which limited ingredients of beer to barley, hops and water was enacted in Bavaria in 1516 and eventually became the norm in northern Europe.


“About the closest thing to the grog today is produced on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea,” Dr. McGovern noted. “You can taste Gotlandsdryka in farmhouses. It’s made from barley, honey, juniper, and other herbs like those in the ancient version.”




Full bibliographic information

Paper title: A biomolecular archaeological approach to ‘Nordic grog’

Authors: Patrick E. McGovern, Gretchen R. Hall, Armen Mirzoian

Publication name and date: Danish Journal of Archaeology, 2014

doi: 10.1080/21662282.2013.867101


Web: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21662282.2013.867101



East Lothian's Broxmouth fort reveals edge of steel

15 January 2014 Last updated at 00:45


Broxmouth was a settlement for nearly 1,000 years, from the Iron Age until the Roman occupation

Archaeologists have identified the earliest use of steel in the British Isles from a site in East Lothian.


They now believe artifacts recovered from the site of the Broxmouth Iron Age hill fort were made from high-carbon steel.


This would have been deliberately heated and quenched in water, indicating "sophisticated blacksmithing skills".


The steel objects were manufactured in the years 490-375BC.


Because of their condition, it has not been possible to say definitively if the objects were tools, weapons, or served some other purpose.


The Broxmouth site was in use from the Iron Age until the period of Roman occupation, nearly 1,000 years later.


The near-total excavation of the area in the 1970s means it is almost entirely gone, with a cement works in its place.


The new research was carried out on objects recovered at that time.


Well-preserved roundhouses, elaborate hill fort entrances and an exceptionally rare Iron Age cemetery were among the discoveries made at the site.


A generation of Scottish archaeologists learned their trade at Broxmouth, which became one of the most comprehensive excavations of any Iron Age hill fort in Britain.


In 2008, a new project was set up at the University of Bradford to write up the findings of the excavation.


Dr Gerry McDonnell, an expert in archaeological metals and a specialist involved in the project, said: "The process of manufacturing steel requires extensive knowledge, skill and craftsmanship.


"It is far from straightforward, which is why such an early example of its production tells us so much about the people who once occupied this hill fort.


"It points to an advanced, organised community where complex skills were refined and passed on."


Cabinet Secretary for Culture Fiona Hyslop said: "Broxmouth has a special place in the history of Scottish archaeology, and of the many interesting discoveries to come out of it, evidence of the earliest use of steel in Britain is particularly exciting.


"The manufacture of steel is a complex and skilled process."



Headhunters' Trophy Skulls Uncovered From Ancient London

Skull discoveries point to hard knocks, and untidy endings, for ancient Roman gladiators and criminals.

Dan Vergano

National Geographic



Beheadings and brutality aplenty marked the deaths of the Roman Empire's gladiators, criminals, and war victims, suggest forensic archaeologists looking at skulls from ancient London.


The thriving capital of a Roman province by A.D. 100, Londinium (now London) held Roman legions, restive Britons, and an amphitheater for gladiatorial games. Along one of London's "lost rivers," the Walbrook stream, the city also held tanneries and burial pits.


In a new Journal of Archaeological Science report by Rebecca Redfern of the Museum of London and Heather Bonney of London's Natural History Museum, analysis of 39 skulls uncovered from those pits—many bearing marks of decapitation and other brutality—tell a gory tale of ancient times.


"It is possible that these represent the remains of executed criminals, gladiators, and trophy heads," Redfern says. "We are confident that injuries we observed on these human remains could not have been caused by accident."


Gladiators were famously one of the chief entertainments of the Roman era, fighting in various costumes and with a range of weaponry in amphitheaters across the empire. While Roman art often depicted gladiators brawling and legionaries brandishing the heads of defeated enemies before emperors, the skulls provide direct evidence of ferocious lives and deaths in the ancient empire. .


In 1989, archaeologists uncovered the skulls from a series of pits connected to tanneries and from a well once located along the Walbrook stream. Most dated to A.D. 120 to 160, when ancient Londinium was at its height, and belonged to men between the ages of 26 and 35.


Skulls from all of the pits bore marks of trauma from blunt force or edged weapons, the new microscopic wear analysis shows, indicating smashed or slashed faces, fractures of the eye and cheekbones, and blows to the back of the head.


The jawbone of an adult male was found in an open pit with marks of dog gnawing.

Indicating they had led rough lives, eight of the men's skulls bore signs of previous healed fractures. Most of the skulls showed signs of some wounds healed prior to the owner's traumatic death.


In death, just over half of the men's skulls bore freshly acquired marks of multiple wounds to the head, including broken or slashed jaws. One of the men's skulls, buried alone, directly betrays cut marks indicating he was beheaded. The lonely burials of the rest of the skulls (only one thigh bone was found along with them) in the pits point to decapitation as well, the study suggests, before or after death.


The study authors suggest that these signs of hard lives might mean the skulls belonged to gladiators defeated in Londinium's amphitheater, located at the time close to the Walbrook.


In the study, they write, "Evidence for decapitation could reflect the dispatching of mortally injured combatants in the amphitheatre." Although Roman gladiators often received formal funerals, they add, "the bodies of many amphitheatre combatants were not claimed and would have been excluded from formal burial grounds and funerary practices."


However, Harvard's Kathleen Coleman, an expert on Roman gladiator customs, is dubious. "The mutilated human remains found in [the] Walbrook stream sound as though they could have been victims of thuggery, gang warfare, or urban rioting," she says.


Redfern argues that riots or gangs can't explain the collection of skulls. "There is no evidence for social unrest, warfare, or other acts of organised violence in London during the period that these human remains date from," she said by email. Therefore, she sees "two possible outcomes—that these are fatally injured gladiators, or the victims of Roman headhunting—a tantalising prospect."


Trajan's Column in Rome, for example, and other Roman public works depict Roman soldiers displaying the heads of "barbarian" enemies defeated in battle. The skulls found in London lack the damage associated with being mounted on posts after decapitation, one display practice of the time, but that doesn't mean they weren't otherwise exhibited after execution or death in Londinium's amphitheater, say the study authors.


However, without tombstones such as those found at a known gladiators' cemetery in the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey, "there is no evidence to link these skeletons with gladiators," concludes Coleman.


That leaves other possibilities raised by the study authors, namely that the skulls either belonged to executed criminals or were war trophies collected by Roman legionaries.


"The Roman military were strongly associated with headhunting practices," says the study. Stationed at Hadrian's Wall for frontier skirmishes, they would have had plenty of opportunities. The evidence of beheading, some of the puncture wounds, and the sheer number of noggins all suggest that "some of these remains derive from trophy heads."


Alternately, criminals might have been killed and then left for display after death. One skull found at the site appears to have been gnawed on by a dog before being tossed in a pit.


"The view of bloodthirsty Romans has wide currency, but this is the first time that we have evidence of these types of violent acts in London," Redfern concludes. For now, she says the evidence is open enough to allow for the skulls coming from any or all of the possibilities—gladiators, criminals, or war trophies—raised by the study.


In the future, the archaeologists hope to pursue isotope analyses aimed at uncovering where the skulls' owners originated, which may reveal whether they were executed locals or merely unfortunates from faraway places, perhaps gladiators, who met a grisly end in Old Londinium.


Win Scutt’s note on next story:

Alfred may have been buried up to four times:

·         Old Minster, Winchester 899AD

·         Remains moved to New Minster by his son after 901AD

·         Moved to newly built Hyde Abbey in 1110AD

·         At Dissolution in 1538, a number of Royal bodies may have been moved to St Bartholemews, or they may have just been desecrated.

From a collection in cardboard boxes of animal and human bones excavated at Hyde Abbey back in 1999 the archaeologists have found part of a human pelvis from a roughly 40 year old male that radiocarbon dating shows is likely to date to around (I haven't seen the radiocarbon date but it will probably have a standard deviation of 50 to 100 years, so this date is approximate) 899 AD - when King Alfred died.

So if the pelvis is Alfred's or perhaps his son's, it may have never been moved to St Bartholemew's from Hyde.


I think it's far from conclusive. Thousands of people would have died around Winchester in the 9th and 10th century and this could be any one of them. The moving of the remains three times to reach St Barthoemew's means that they could easily be mixed up with someone else. Far from "proof that would stand up in a court of law!"



Archaeologists may have found remains of Alfred the Great

Section of human pelvis has been carbon-dated within lifetimes of Alfred the Great and son Edward the Elder

Maev Kennedy

theguardian.com, Friday 17 January 2014 15.07 GMT


Archaeologists have identified a piece of bone they believe may have belonged to the English king Alfred the Great.


The section of human pelvis, carbon-dated to within the lifetimes of Alfred the Great and his son Edward the Elder, has been found in Winchester, the first solid result in centuries of attempts to find the last resting place of one of the most famous English kings.


The bone, which was found in a cardboard box in the Winchester museum store, was in a heap of animal bones and some human fragments excavated from the abbey site in 1999, but its significance was missed and it wasn't analysed until within the past year.


The specimen, about a third of the pelvis of an adult male, has been dated by radiocarbon tests to between AD895 and 1017. Alfred died in AD899 and his son Edward in AD924.


It was not among those exhumed last year from an unmarked grave in the grounds of St Bartholomew, the medieval church where some believed Alfred was reburied in the 19th century. That was long after the demolition of nearby Hyde Abbey, where he was originally buried with his son and other members of his family more than 1,000 years ago.


Osteoarchaeologist Katie Tucker looked again at the bones in the museum when tests showed the team of local historians and residents, and experts from the university, that the bones from St Bartholomew, sold to a 19th-century vicar for 10 shillings as those of Alfred and his family, were centuries too late. Hyde Abbey was largely demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries and the remaining buildings apart from a gatehouse were cleared in the 18th century to build a prison.


The team is elated at the discovery and more excavation at the Hyde Abbey site is likely. The exhumation from St Bartholomew was considered for years, but brought forward in the media maelstrom that followed the discovery of Richard III in Leicester, when the site was judged to be at risk from seekers of more lost kings.



Bones of King Alfred the Great believed to have been found in a box at Winchester City Museum

To try to locate more of the royal bones, archaeologists may excavate at the site of the city's medieval Abbey where the pelvic fragment was originally found

DAVID KEYS   Friday 17 January 2014


Long believed to be lost and scattered, King Alfred the Great's mortal remains may be about to make a re-appearance.


A fragment of a male human pelvic bone which had lain unappreciated in a cardboard box in a museum store room in Winchester, once the capital of Anglo-Saxon England, has been identified as probably belonging to either King Alfred himself - or to his son King Edward the Elder. The crucial evidence, announced on Friday afternoon, was a radiocarbon date obtained from the bone by scientists at Oxford University.


Now archaeologists from the University of Winchester are hoping to carry out archaeological excavations and further scientific tests that might reveal which of the two kings the pelvic fragment belonged to.


Further analysis of the fragment (and any bones found in future excavations) may include DNA tests, to help determine identity - and isotopic tests to shed new light on the person's diet.


It's even conceivable that DNA tests on the bone in the future could theoretically shed light on both hereditary or contracted diseases - information that could prove particularly significant, as Alfred the Great suffered from a mysterious illness throughout his life.


The right os coxa, or pelvis, of an older male found at the site of the High Altar in Hyde Abbey, believed to be part of King Alfred's remains The right os coxa, or pelvis, of an older male found at the site of the High Altar in Hyde Abbey, believed to be part of King Alfred's remains 


To try to locate more of the royal bones, archaeologists may excavate at the site of Winchester's medieval Abbey where the pelvic fragment was originally found.


Apart from the radiocarbon date, the other key piece of evidence suggesting that the bone is that of either Alfred the Great or his son, is the location it was found at - the site of the  high altar at Hyde Abbey where historians believe that both Alfred and his son were buried.


Both kings' skeletons had a turbulent history that more than matched the turbulent period in which they had lived.


Alfred died in 899 and was buried in the great monastic church, the 7th century Old Minster in his de facto capital, Winchester. But at the time, a New Minster was being built and when it was completed, four years after his death, his remains were moved,  with great pomp and ceremony, to the new building.


A quarter of century later, his son was also interred in the New Minster.


But in the early 12th century, King Henry I wanted to expand his royal palace at Winchester - and the New Minster was demolished to accommodate Henry's plan. The New Minster's monks - and King Alfred and King Edward the Elder's skeletons - were forced to move outside the city walls of Winchester to a new monastery which was specially built to accommodate them. The two Anglo-Saxon kings' skeletons were then re-interred once more - again with much pomp and circumstance - almost certainly immediately in front of the high altar at Hyde Abbey.


But that wasn't the end of their tribulations.  For in the mid-16th century Hyde was dissolved by Henry VIII - and fell into ruin, the two kings' graves being largely forgotten. Indeed, so forgotten were they that, in the 18th century, a jail was built nearby and its governor decided to turn the area containing the forgotten royal graves into a garden for his wife.


Workmen, preparing the garden, found what was potentially King Alfred's coffin, stripped it of its lead and sold the metal for cash. They then picked up the bones and scattered them around.


Then,  in the 1860s, as scholars became more interested in the Anglo Saxon past, and then again in 1901, the site of the royal graves was further damaged by antiquarians and others desperately searching for Alfred's lost remains.


Finally in the 1990s a proper archaeological excavation took place at the site and substantial quantities of sheep, cattle and human bones were found there - some in the area where the Abbey's high altar had once stood.


But it was only a few years later, in 2002, that the human bones  were properly examined and separated from  the animal remains.


It was these human bones that Oxford University then dated - and one of them, part of a male pelvis found directly on the site of the high altar, produced a date consistent with it being from Alfred or his son. They were the only males from that period thought to have been buried in that specific very high status High Altar location.


The crucial pelvic bone fragment belongs to Winchester City Council, but it is currently on loan from Winchester City Museums service to the University of Winchester which has been conducting a detailed archaeological and historical investigation into King Alfred's potential remains  in conjunction with a community organisation associated with the Abbey site, Hyde900.


“Alfred was hugely influential across the British Isles, but here in Winchester, capital of Wessex, Alfred's story is particularly resonant,” said Professor Joy Carter, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Winchester. “There have been many attempts to find and identify his final resting place over the last century and beyond, but all have proved inconclusive.


“The last months have seen more twists and turns in that story as we have waited with bated breath for our academics to reveal the results of their research.”



Saving Relics, Afghans Defy the Taliban



KABUL, Afghanistan — Every piece of antiquity that is restored to the halls of the bombed, pillaged and now rebuilt National Museum of Afghanistan sends a message of defiance and resilience.


These are messages to the Taliban, who in 2001 smashed every museum artifact that they could find that bore a human or animal likeness. But these are messages for others as well: to the warlords who looted the museum, some of whom are still in positions of power in Afghanistan; to corrupt custodians of the past who stood by while some 70,000 objects walked out the door.


Just a few years ago, the National Museum here was defined by how much it had lost — some 70 percent of its collection destroyed or stolen, including precious objects dating back to the Stone and Bronze Ages, through Zoroastrianism and Buddhism to early Islam, and documenting some of the world’s most mysterious ancient cultures.


Now, it might better be defined by how much it has regained.


Three hundred of the most important of the 2,500 objects the Taliban had smashed have been painstakingly reassembled in recent years, and many of the others are arrayed in boxes and trays, awaiting their turn for restoration.


The looted objects have also been returning, as word has gotten around to customs agents worldwide about how to identify Afghan artifacts. In recent years, Interpol and Unesco have teamed up with governments around the world to interdict and return at least 857 objects — some of them priceless, like 4,000-year-old Bactrian princess figurines that had disappeared from the National Museum. Another 11,000 objects have been returned after being seized by the border authorities at Afghanistan’s own frontiers.


A recent security upgrade at the museum financed by the United States government was just completed, at least some hedge against the kind of pillaging that has plagued the institution over the past three and a half decades.


And a team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute are halfway through a three-year-long grant from the American government to register every object in the museum’s collections, creating a digital record. Intended to guard against future theft, the project will also help with restorations, and serve as a resource for scholars worldwide.


“If you don’t know what you have, you can’t protect it,” said Michael T. Fisher, the American archaeologist heading the Chicago team. “When you do, the whole story opens up, and it’s incredible what you can see. A lot of the collection is world class.”


Presiding over this institution is Omara Khan Masoudi, who does not have a degree in archaeology, but has even more impeccable credentials: He is one of the key keepers. These are the men who kept the keys to the vaults where some of the museum’s greatest treasures were hidden, including the Bactrian Hoard, a collection of exquisite gold and silver artifacts dating back more than 2,000 years.


Through guile and deception, Mr. Masoudi and his fellow key keepers kept many such valuables — the ones most easily melted down — safe during the country’s wrenching civil war and the following stretch of Islamist rule.


They hid some of the best statues in rooms at the Ministry of Culture, or in obscure corners of the storerooms scattered around the museum, preserving many before the Taliban’s rampage in March 2001. In those few weeks of fury, Islamist fighters raced to destroy images of people or animals, which they considered sacrilegious, including the giant ancient Buddha statues of Bamian Province.


Afterward, people like Abdullah Hakimzada, a restorer who has spent the past 33 years working at the museum, were on hand to sweep up the fragments of the objects that the Taliban smashed — sorting many of them hurriedly into sacks and boxes that later would help the reassembly work.


“If we had enough time and resources at our disposal, we could restore everything,” he said.


Mr. Hakimzada was also one of the key keepers, to three safes inside the presidential palace that the Taliban never found.


After years of damage by the Taliban and the warlords, many of whom looted the museum’s collections on demand for wealthy collectors, the museum was a mess when it reopened in 2004. Its storerooms were stuffed with boxes and bags of fragments, and even intact objects had deteriorated during the years the museum’s roof was largely missing.


Since then, a series of archaeological teams, mainly French, have helped put it back together again. Restorers like Mr. Hakimzada were sent abroad to study techniques at museums in Europe and America.


When Mr. Fisher’s team went to work registering and digitizing the collection in 2012, it was like doing archaeology on the museum itself. “Sometimes we feel like we’re excavating the present, going through the museum and seeing what has happened,” he said.


Along the way there have been striking discoveries, many not on display for lack of exhibition space and resources. A new home for the museum is planned, but it is still in the fund-raising stage.


A clay tablet with lines of cuneiform writing, originally unearthed in an ancient trash dump in Kandahar, long thought lost, was found in a basement storeroom by the Chicago team. It is evidence that the sixth-century B.C. Persian civilization of Cyrus the Great had reached that far east.


Returned were some of the Begram ivories, stunningly intricate, carved decorations believed to have been stolen from the museum. Some resurfaced in the museum’s own collections, others were confiscated by border police.


Some of the most satisfying successes, though, were restorations of objects smashed by the Taliban. Often the archaeologists did not know even what object the pieces belonged to.


“It’s like taking 50 jigsaw puzzles all mixed up, the tough ones, that you don’t know you have all the pieces to, with no picture to work from, and putting it together,” Mr. Fisher said.


From such efforts, they reassembled objects like the cross-legged, second- or third-century A.D. Bodhisatva Siddhartha, which now has pride of place at the top of the museum’s staircase. Larger than life-size, it had been reduced by the Taliban to a pile of shards.


Mr. Hakimzada’s favorite restoration, though, was the statue of King Kanishka, from the Kushan empire that ruled much of South Asia from its Afghan base in the first through fourth centuries A.D.


“During that time, Afghanistan was at peace, and society was very tolerant and religiously inclusive,” he said.


A series of restored statues from the centuries after Alexander the Great’s invasion look like perfectly muscled Greek gods — except they are Greco-Bactrian Buddhas, among the earliest representations of the Buddha in human form. They are compelling evidence that ancient Afghanistan was not just a crossroads for the cultures of its powerful neighbors — China, India, Persia — but also contributed greatly in its own right. Two of them have deep gouges from hammer blows, and missing faces, but remain exquisite.


“Archaeological artifacts are our national identity,” said the museum’s archival head, Mohammad Yahyeh Muhibzada. “It’s our national responsibility to protect them so future generations will know who we are and who we were.”


While the emphasis is on the ancient, there are more modern artifacts as well — including several rusting steam locomotives in the gardens. “We have them to remind people that at the end of the 19th century, Afghanistan had railroads, while at the end of the 20th, it did not,” Mr. Masoudi said.


Hardly a day goes by that the Chicago archaeologists do not discover some intriguing new object in the storerooms — like a clay lid, with an inscription from the extinct Kharoshti language, found in December.


“There are so many things that are very, very, very beautiful,” said Mr. Masoudi, the museum director. “First we need a new building.”


The crown jewels of the museum’s collections are the Bactrian Hoard, recovered from ancient burial mounds in northern Afghanistan in 1978 by Russian archaeologists.


They have been on tour since 2007, seen in France, the Netherlands, Britain, North America and Australia, and have provided the museum with an important source of revenue, $3.5 million so far.


But as the war against the Taliban has stretched on, some here see another good reason to keep them on tour.


“I personally hope they never return,” Mr. Hakimzada said. “At least where they are now, we know they are safe.”



Melting glaciers in northern Italy reveal corpses of WW1 soldiers

The glaciers of the Italian Alps are slowly melting to reveal horrors from the Great War, preserved for nearly a century


By Laura Spinney12:00PM GMT 13 Jan 2014

At first glance Peio is a small alpine ski resort like many others in northern Italy. In winter it is popular with middle-class Italians as well as, increasingly, Russian tourists. In summer there’s good hiking in the Stelvio National Park. It has a spa, shops that sell a dozen different kinds of grappa, and, perhaps, aspirations to be the next Cortina. A cable car was inaugurated three years ago, and a multi-storey car park is under construction.

But in Peio, reminders of the region’s past are never far away. Stroll up through the village and, passing the tiny First World War museum on your left, you come to the 15th-century San Rocco church with its Austro-Hungarian cemetery and sign requesting massimo rispetto. Here, one sunny day last September, 500 people attended the funeral of two soldiers who fell in battle in May 1918.

In Peio, you feel, the First World War never quite ended. And in one very real sense, it lives on, thanks to the preserving properties of ice. For Peio was once the highest village in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and had a ringside seat to a little-known but spectacular episode of that conflict called the White War.


In 1914 both Trentino – the province in which Peio lies – and the neighbouring South Tyrol were Hapsburg domains. Italy, recently unified and eager to settle her frontiers permanently, looked on the two provinces, along with Trieste, as ‘unredeemed lands’. In May 1915, with the aim of reclaiming them, she entered the war on the side of the Allies. Conflict was already raging on the western and eastern fronts; now a third front opened up. It stretched from the Julian Alps, which Italy now shares with Slovenia in the east, to the Ortler massif near the Swiss border further west – some 250 miles.

As much of the front was at altitudes of over 6,500ft, a new kind of war had to be developed. The Italians already had specialist mountain troops – the Alpini with their famous feathered caps – but the Austrians had to create the equivalent: the Kaiserschützen. They were supported by artillery and engineers who constructed an entire infrastructure of war at altitude, including trenches carved out of the ice and rudimentary cableways for transporting men and munitions to the peaks.

In the decades that followed the armistice, the world warmed up and the glaciers began to retreat, revealing the debris of the White War. The material that, beginning in the 1990s, began to flood out of the mountains was remarkably well preserved. It included a love letter, addressed to Maria and never sent, and an ode to a louse, ‘friend of my long days’, scribbled on a page of an Austrian soldier’s diary.


The bodies, when they came, were often mummified. The two soldiers interred last September were blond, blue-eyed Austrians aged 17 and 18 years old, who died on the Presena glacier and were buried by their comrades, top-to-toe, in a crevasse. Both had bulletholes in their skulls. One still had a spoon tucked into his puttees — common practice among soldiers who travelled from trench to trench and ate out of communal pots. When Franco Nicolis of the Archaeological Heritage Office in the provincial capital, Trento, saw them, he says, his first thought was for their mothers. ‘They feel contemporary. They come out of the ice just as they went in,’ he says. In all likelihood the soldiers’ mothers never discovered their sons’ fate.

One of the oddities of the White War was that both the Alpini and the Kaiserschützen recruited local men who knew the mountains, which meant that they often knew each other too. Sometimes family loyalties were split. ‘There are many stories of people hearing the voice of a brother or a cousin in the thick of battle,’ Nicolis says.

For both sides the worst enemy was the weather, which killed more men than the fighting. At those altitudes, the temperature could fall to -30C, and the ‘white death’ — death by avalanche — claimed thousands of lives.


The people of Peio lived these stories because unlike the inhabitants of other frontline villages, they stayed put. ‘The Emperor decreed that this village should not be evacuated,’ Angelo Dalpez, Peio’s mayor, says. ‘As the highest village in the empire, it was symbolic — a message to the rest.’ They worked as porters and suppliers of food. They tended the injured, buried the dead, and witnessed the remodelling of their ancestral landscape (shelling lowered the summit of one mountain, San Matteo, by 20ft).

In 1919 the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye awarded Trentino to Italy. ‘There was never any clash,’ Nicolis says. ‘No revolution. It was an entirely smooth transition.’ People here had always felt autonomous, in their mountainous border region, and under the new arrangement the Italian government granted them a degree of autonomy. They carried on drinking grappa, eating knödel and speaking Italian (which had been one of the 12 official languages of the empire), but they never forgot their history. Many of their relations had fought on the Hapsburg side, and when the soldiers started melting out of the ice, they looked on them as their grand-fathers or great-grandfathers.

This became clear in 2004, when Maurizio Vicenzi, a local mountain guide and the director of Peio’s war museum, whose own family fought for the Austrians, stumbled on the mummified remains of three Hapsburg soldiers hanging upside down out of an ice wall near San Matteo — at 12,000ft, scene of some of the highest battles in history. The three were unarmed and had bandages in their pockets, suggesting they may have been stretcher-bearers who died in the last battle for the mountain, on September 3 1918. When a pathologist was granted permission to study one of the bodies, to try to understand the mummification process, there was an outcry among local people who felt that the dead were being profaned.


The three now lie in the cemetery at San Rocco next to the two from the Presena glacier, in five unmarked graves. All have passed through the lab of the forensic anthropologist Daniel Gaudio and his team, in Vicenza. His priority is to name the mummified soldiers if he can. It is rare that he succeeds for although he can almost always extract DNA, contextual information about the circumstances of their deaths tends to be lacking, meaning that he can’t locate potential living relations to find a match.

In 2005 Vicenzi started exploring a site called Punta Linke, almost 6,500ft above Peio. He found a natural cave in the ice and material scattered over the surface — steel helmets, straw overshoes, boxes of ammunition — and realised there was a structure beneath. With friends from Peio, Great War enthusiasts all, he investigated. Nicolis’s team arrived on the scene two summers later, and together they excavated a wooden cabin — a station on one of the cableways that provided vital supplies to the troops.

The cabin is built against the rocky peak of Punta Linke, and behind it a tunnel runs for 100ft through that peak. When the team first found the tunnel, which is the height of a man, it was filled with ice that they cleared with the help of giant fans. During the war wooden crates brought up on the cableway were pushed through the tunnel before being launched on the final stage of their journey – an impressive 4,000ft leap – using an unsupported cableway, across the glacier to the front line. Beside the tunnel’s exit is a window through which a lookout watched the crates go.


The tunnel dug by Austrian soldiers behind the cableway station at Punta Linke. Photo: Laura Spinney

Inside the cabin is a Sendling engine, made in Munich, dismantled by the departing Austrians and now restored. The archaeologists have left in place three documents they found pinned to the wall: handwritten instructions for operating the engine, a page from an illustrated newspaper, Wiener Bilder, showing Viennese people queuing to buy food, which by 1916 was in short supply in the crumbling empire, and a postcard addressed to a surgeon in the engineering corps, Georg Kristof, from his wife in Bohemia. The card shows a woman sleeping peacefully and is signed, in Czech, ‘Your abandoned lover’.

In their lab in Trento, Nicolis and his colleague Nicola Cappellozza show me the love letter written to Maria, which was found in a box of letters ready to be posted, on Punta Cadini (11,500ft), and dated late in 1918. (The archaeologists do not want to reveal the contents of the letter until they can trace Maria’s family.) ‘Perhaps hostilities ended before they could be sent,’ Nicolis says. Other finds include fragments of newspaper printed in Cyrillic. The Russian tourists who visit Peio today may not know it, but other Russians were there before them — prisoners brought from the eastern front and used as pack mules, or put to work weaving the straw overshoes that protected the Austrians’ feet from frostbite.


Documents pinned to the wall by soldiers at the Punta Linke cableway station. Photo: Laura Spinney

Peio’s war museum fills out the picture. Inside its display cases are primitive-looking surgical instruments of the kind Kristof might have used, rosaries, porcelain pipes that resemble small saxophones, decorated in the Tyrolian style, and ‘trench art’ carved out of fragments of shells or shell casings. In the hungry period following the armistice, the villagers roamed the mountains looking to salvage material they could reuse or sell. Some pieces they kept as souvenirs, donating them to the museum when it opened 10 years ago. ‘They consider the museum their collective property,’ Dalpez says. ‘They’re proud of it.’

More than 80 soldiers who fell in the White War have come to light in recent decades. There are certainly more to come, but one body continues to elude the rescuers – that of Arnaldo Berni, the 24-year-old captain who led the Italians to their conquest of San Matteo on August 13 1918. Berni’s story illustrates the tragedy of a war where, as the British historian Mark Thompson explained in his 2008 book, The White War, Herculean feats produced trivial territorial gains, and no one down below took much notice.


After his victory, in a letter that must have slipped past the censors, Berni complained to relations about the press coverage. ‘There is a short and confused description of our battle, which was in fact brilliant and incurred very little loss of life… The journalists don’t come to us at such high altitudes, so the prodigious efforts of our men are not known.’ He died three weeks later, when the Austrians — on their way to recapturing San Matteo — dropped a shell on the crevasse in which he was sheltering. Two months later, the Italians dealt a shattering blow to the Austro-Hungarian war effort at Vittorio Veneto, on the Venetian plain, and the war was over.

There have been many attempts to find Berni over the years, first by his own men, then by his devoted half-sister, Margherita — the once skinny little girl he nicknamed Ossicino, or ‘Little Bone’ — who for long after the war made annual pilgrimages to the mountains, and finally by Vicenzi, Cappellozza and others, who in 2009 climbed down into the crevasse where the hero almost certainly met his death. They found no trace of him, but Cappellozza hasn’t forgotten the experience. ‘We were able to walk horizontally a long way. I remember the colours in the ice — the blues, the violets.’


In the summer of 2013, just before the snow came, Nicolis’s team put the finishing touches to the restoration of the way-station at Punta Linke. From next summer, intrepid hikers will be able to visit this simple monument and, as he puts it, ‘smell the war’. Sometimes, Nicolis says, he looks through the window at Punta Linke and tries to see the mountains as the soldiers did. Those, like Kristof, who came from distant corners of the empire, must have been mystified by the struggle for this inhospitable wilderness. For others, local highlanders, the mountains were the prize and the Emperor the abstraction, but one for whom they were expected to fight men they had climbed with all their lives.

In both cases, he believes, the mountains signified death before they signified beauty. ‘Snow is truly a sign of mourning,’ Giuseppe Ungaretti, the Italian war poet, wrote in 1917. Peio’s mayor has a different take on things. At the funeral of the Presena pair, three anthems were played — the Italian, the Austrian and the Ode to Joy. ‘The people who fought here,’ he says, ‘were Europeans before their time.’