Monday 18 April 2016

Glacial Archaeology: About the challange to work in extreme conditions

The logistic challenges and alpine terrain make any archaeological research performed in the mountains more difficult than in the valley.
In the central Alps we can find human vestiges from prehistory until the 20th century.

The archaeological remains along the Austro-Italian front of WW1are among the best preserved of the whole conflict, reaching altitudes up to 3900 m.asl.
The glaciers of the Ortler and Adamello Alps have facilitated the creation of a number of time capsules, containing an unmodified material situation since the first days of November 1918. 
The Austro-Hungarian Positions on Punta Linke (3632 m by courtesy of the Department of Archaeology of the Autonomous Province of Trento)

For example the Austro-Hungarian positions on Punta Linke (Video in Italian language) or those on Corno di Cavento (Video in Italian language).
The northern face of the Königspitze / Gran Zebrù (3,851 m / 12,635 ft)

Since several years, the Department of Archaeology of the Autonomous Province of South-Tyrol is documenting and rescuing various archaeological remains in high alpine environment.
The highlight of 2015 was the documentation of the highest and best preserved wooden barrack of the whole frontline on top of the Königspitze/Gran Zebrù (3,851 m / 12,635 ft)
The summit of the Königspitze /Gran Zebrù seen from west. The black dot on the left of the highest point is the snow-covered barrack.

Some technical considerations:

  • Logistics: 
    • Due to erosion and rockfall caused by climate change, the summit of the Königspitze is not longer reachable by foot during the summer months. That implies the continuous employment of helicopters for material and passenger transportation. Beyond that, the altitude causes a reduced helicopter performance and increases the total amount of needed flights.
      Removal of the equipment by Helicopter
    • The Ortler Alps are forming a weather divide with very changeable conditions and the permanent danger of strong winds, clouds or thunderstorms which can suddenly impede the use of the helicopter. For that reason an emergency bivouac on site is indispensable.
      Luca Bezzi interviewed by Thomas Hainz and Werner Laner. In the backgound the Königspitze / Gran Zebrù covered by clouds.

The helicopter is trying to carry the equipment on the summit. Without success: Clouds and fall winds are thwarting the action.

    • High altitude reduces the performance of every combustion engine (like generators, gas burners,...) and makes them easier prone to failure.
      Moving on the crest.
    • The topographic situation of the summit of the Königspitze, with it's narrow crest, affects on the work-flow of all operations, due to permanent space problems.
      Working in the north face
  • Working Safety:
    • The northern face of the Königspitze is about 1.200m high and the WW1 barrack is situated on top of this precipice. For that reason one needs effective and permanent security measures (Fixed ropes, ice screws,...).
      Working fixed by two ropes. In the background Mt. Ortler (3.905 m)
  • Surveying:
    • We are using DGPS for the positioning of the site. Like in many other regions, South-Tyrol disposes of a public positioning service (STPOS "South Tyrolean Position Service") substituting the usage of own base stations.
      Alessandro Bezzi mounting the GPS base station on a known point on 2.800 m. Communication with the rover by radio signal.
      But in our case we are still applying our own base, build above a known fix point and in continuous radio contact with the rover on the summit. This guarantees independent surveying without regarding to the quality and stability of the cell reception.
      DGPS survey on the summit while weather is becoming bad.
  • Documentation:
    • The topographic situation and reduced mobility on site conditions also the speed and completeness of data acquisition. Methods like structure from motion would ideally need a total photographic coverage of the object of interest and constant light conditions.
      Structure from motion without the possibility to regard for people, equipment or shadows on the pictures
      Both requirements are not guaranteed and this may affect on the quality of documentation.
  •  Conservation:
    •  The glacier ice inside and outside of the barrack has conserved different organic materials like paper, leather, faeces, textiles,...
      Recovering organic material
      Once uncovered, that materials need to be handled instantly in a appropriate way, preparing them for the transport to the conservation laboratories.
Watch this video, produced by Thomas Hainz and Werner Laner to get an impression of Mt. Königspitze / Gran Zebrù and Arc-Team working on modern conflict archaeology in the Alps.

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