Soviet Bombers and Scythian Mummies: The Archaeology Uncovered By Climate Change

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In Poland, severe drought has revealed the remains of a Soviet fighter plane that went down in 1945. It’s far from the first (or last) archaeological site that climate change is revealing, in some cases for the first time in millennia.

Melting glaciers, thawing permafrost, and historic droughts are all playing a part in some of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries of the last few years. It’s a bittersweet phenomenon—that, as our planet changes, new pieces of our past will be revealed while other will decay.

In an AP story this week, we learn of two finds that have surfaced after a drought reduced Poland’s Vistula River and its tributaries to the lowest waterline since measurements were first recorded. In Warsaw, the drought has revealed shards of Jewish tombstones in the Vistula that were removed—by the hundreds of thousands—and used to “reinforce its banks” during the 19th century:


Jonny Daniels, who runs a foundation called “From the Depths,” holds a tombstone found in the Vistula. AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski.

Meanwhile, one of the river’s tributaries has revealed a Soviet war plane that crashed there in 1945, as the AP explains:

The head of the museum, Zdzislaw Leszczynski, told The Associated Press that parts of Soviet uniforms, a parachute, a sheepskin coat collar, parts of boots, a pilot’s TT pistol and radio equipment were found, along with a lot of heavy ammunition. The inscriptions on the control panel and the radio equipment are in Cyrillic.

Leszczynski said, according to witnesses, the plane was hit while flying low in January 1945 and crashed through the thick ice into the river. At the time, the German army was retreating toward Berlin before the Red Army’s advance.


While remarkable, these are far from the first archaeological finds that have been revealed by climate change and extreme weather.


A Warmer Planet With Less Ice...

Take the slow but steady heating up of our planet, which has contributed to a number of high-profile finds from mummies to Stone Age tools. For example, over the past two decades climate change has dramatically reduced the amount of ice cover in traditionally frozen parts of North America—in many cases, opening up sites that have been literally frozen in time. Archaeologists in the Yukon have uncovered dozens of tools, weapons, and even clothing amongst the remains of ice patches that have stayed frozen year-around for as long as 5,000 years, as MacLean’s reported last year.

Now that those patches are melting, the relics of this ancient way of life are slowly being revealed: According to one study, more than 200 artifacts have been uncovered from 43 melting patches in the past 20 years. Among the finds are bows and many, many arrows—as the Yukon Ice Patch Project explains, the uncovered evidence has helped further our knowledge of when bow-and-arrow technology become widely used in North America.


Likewise, in Siberia, where permafrost normally preserves organic material, unprecedented warmth is thawing burial mounts from a lost nomadic civilization—the Scythians. An archaeologist named Hermann Parzinger has had to work quickly to excavate their burial mounds, revealing the remarkably preserved bodies thanks to the ice. Now, it’s a race against the climate, as Discover Magazine explained a few years ago:

As the permafrost thaws, the ice that has preserved the Scythian mummies for so many centuries will thaw too. In the Olon-Kurin-Gol grave, the ice that once crushed the mummy against the roof of the burial chamber had receded nine inches by the time the chamber was opened. Within a few decades, the ice lenses may be completely gone. “Right now we’re facing a rescue archaeology situation,” Parzinger says. “It’s hard to say how much longer these graves will be there.”


A Scythian mummy in the Martin Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin. AP Photo/Franka Bruns.


... And More Drought

But not every instance of extreme weather has archaeologists worried—some have rejoiced at the opportunity to study formerly inaccessible sites. In Iraq, an area that had been flooded to create a man-made reservoir was dried up for the first time in decades during a severe drought in 2009. NPR reported:

They ran the gamut of civilizations — from 3,000 B.C. to the Sumerian and Roman periods. Ancient Jewish settlements were also submerged in the area. But because of the receding waters, Ratib has been able to access some sites for the first time — including, for instance, a cliff with a series of pre-Christian tombs carved into its face.


Still, more often than not, our changing climate poses a huge hurdle for the people trying to study our past. After all, we’re living in the Anthropocene: No longer just scattering evidence of our existence on the Earth, but changing the very Earth itself.

Images of the Soviet bomber plane in Wyszogrod via AP Photo/OSP Wyszogrod.

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