This article is taken from the monthly journal Sciences et Avenir – La Recherche #913 of March 2023.
Norway, September 2021: Archaeologist Runar Hole and his partner Bjorn Hessen are scouring the slopes of Mount Digervarden, about 300 km north of Oslo, in search of a 1,300-year-old ski. Their investigation has been ongoing since 2014, after scientists from the Oppland Glacier Archeology Program discovered a remarkably preserved ancient wooden plank with a rare mounting flange on the same 1,780-meter mountain.
According to Runar Hole, his twin is “even better preserved”. Or a wooden plank 187 cm long and 17 cm wide, also equipped with a heel locking system. Thus, the researchers collected the best preserved pair of old skis in the world! Carbon-14 analysis showed that it dates back to 750 AD. At that time, the kingdom of Norway did not yet exist, and Scandinavia, before the Vikings, was inhabited by the Sami, Lapps and Germans.
This discovery sheds new light on the history of skiing in Europe, the oldest relic of which, found in a peat bog in Siberia, dates back to 6300 BC, long before the invention of the wheel, in the 4th millennium BC! Rock art on the island of Rødøy in Norway depicts a skier from 4500 to 5000 BC Finally, the oldest pair of skis known to date, but incomplete, discovered in Sweden, dates back to 3200 BC.
This rock engraving, dating from 4500-5000 B.C. BC, depicts a skier on large boards (left). Found in 1933 on the island of Rødøy, Norway, it was vandalized in 2016 by two children who wanted to make it more readable (right). 1 credit
“The appearance of skis is probably due to the retreat of glaciers after the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. Elk and caribou then migrated from Central Asia to Northern Europe, following in their footsteps after the hunters,” Lars Pilö, archaeologist. at Oppland County Council,” explains a 2018 article in the Journal of Glacial Archaeology. It was in this context that the use of wooden boards appeared to make it easier to move while staying above the snow cover. The word “ski” itself is traditionally associated with the Old Norse word for wooden blanks, but the similarity is also identified with the Mongolian vocabulary.
During the Middle Ages and into the early 20th century, this practice remained a widespread mode of transport and hunting in the Scandinavian countries. But it was in Norway that the history that led to modern skiing was written. The epic poems depict the Viking gods Ullur and Skadi, who possess, among other attributes, skiing. From the 11th century, the small kingdom organized ski races called “King Harald’s Saga”, and in the 18th century, soldiers began to ski in the winter. It was to stimulate their training that the military command decided in 1767 to single out the best skiers on steep slopes and on level ground, the most accurate shooting on the slopes, and the fastest evolution between trees – i.e. ancestors of downhill, cross country, biathlon and slalom competitions. Using very different techniques than today, skiers then used fur soles under their skis to propel themselves across the snow layer and a single wooden pole to balance.
Telemark, corner of evolution
Skiing technique underwent a significant change during the national races in Christian (now Oslo) in the 1860s: three farmers from the county of Telemark won outright, covering 200 km in three days. Carpenter Sondre Norheim was the architect of this victory.
In a mountainous area, a man daily encountered a steep slope that connected his house with the village. To make life easier, he worked on the shape of his skis and provided them with rigid leg bindings. This then allowed him to perform turns by bending his inside knee, a technique that later spread to the Nordic countries and is still called telemark.
But it was only at the end of the 19th century that Norwegian skiing gained international importance thanks to Fridtjof Nansen. The polar explorer became famous for crossing the Greenland ice cap for the first time in 1888. The heroic epic was accomplished on skis, with his five companions. Similarly, he reached the northernmost position in the world in 1895. When he was younger, Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian cross-country champion several times. He then wrote press articles describing the practice in the majestic scenery of his country. “Nansen’s articles were the first odes to the fluffy snow, the silence of the snowy fields, the delight of the descent. He was the first to write them with enough literary talent to make them evocative and arouse desire,” writes Alexis Jenny. in his book Le Passport de Monsieur Nansen*.
Thus, this multi-thousand-year history is enriched with new lessons learned from the exceptional discovery of Norwegian archaeologists. A perfectly preserved pair of skis from the 8th century made it possible to make copies and experiment with them. “The wide width of the ski is good for deep snow,” notes Lars Pilö on his science site Secrets of the Ice. found in medieval Norwegian texts. This is a very effective technique where the hunter exhausts the deer before moving in to kill it.”
Since the foot is not rigidly fixed, as in modern skis, it is impossible to change course by pressing on the outside of the ski. In the Chinese mountains of Altai, where skis similar to Digervarden are still used, the use of a stick allows you to direct the trajectory of movement.
Since 2016, more than 2,000 artifacts have been found.
Our Iron Age Norwegian skier took great care of his equipment: the researchers found signs of repair on the second ski, a piece of wood was added in place of the foot to compensate for its wear. Holes made in the front of the wooden slats could allow them to be dragged along while advancing on foot or directed downhill. However, the purpose of these skis and the fate of their owner remain a mystery.
Four arrows and six repellent sticks from the Iron and Bronze Ages have also been found in the ice of Digervarden, remnants of summer deer hunting, when herds gathered on ice floes to avoid insects, but possibly also in winter, in search of food, as Norwegian archaeologists Lars Pilo and Espen Finstad. On the other hand, the presence in the vicinity of several cairns – heaps of stones – could also indicate the existence of an old marked high mountain path. An 18th-century sled pulled out from under the ice not far from there in 2016 seems to confirm this hypothesis.
The investigation continues today on Diegervärden, thanks to the melting of the glaciers. Since 2006, over 2,000 artefacts have already been discovered in this county of Oppland, making it the richest region of glacial archeology in the world. Abundance, which is explained by the proximity of these high mountains to the valleys inhabited since prehistoric times by skiers.
Credit: BRUNO BOURGEOS
* Paulsen, October 2022
Predominantly military discipline in France
Introduced for the first time in France exactly 150 years ago, during the international exhibition of 1878 on the Champ de Mars in Paris, skis were adopted in 1900 by the army in order to control the French Alpine border. Four years later, the War Office would set up a ski school in Briançon (Hautes-Alpes). The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of amateur and sport skiing, culminating in 1936 with the organization of the first Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix (Haute-Savoie).