Archaeologists Discover 1300-Year-Old Pair of Skis, the Best-Preserved Ancient Skis in Existence

Surf­ing is gen­er­al­ly believed to have orig­i­nat­ed in Hawaii and will be for­ev­er asso­ci­at­ed with the Poly­ne­sian islands. Yet anthro­pol­o­gists have found evi­dence of some­thing like surf­ing wher­ev­er humans have encoun­tered a beach — on the coasts of West Africa, in the Caribbean, India, Syr­ia, and Japan. Surf­ing his­to­ri­an Matt War­shaw sums up the prob­lem with locat­ing the ori­gins of this human activ­i­ty: “Rid­ing waves sim­ply for plea­sure most like­ly devel­oped in one form or anoth­er among any coastal peo­ple liv­ing near warm ocean water.” Could one make a sim­i­lar point about ski­ing?

It seems that wher­ev­er humans have set­tled in places cov­ered with snow for much of the year, they’ve impro­vised all kinds of ways to trav­el across it. Who did so with the first skis, and when? Ski-like objects dat­ing from 6300–5000 BC have been found in north­ern Rus­sia. A New York Times arti­cle recent­ly described evi­dence of Stone Age skiers in Chi­na. “If ski­ing, as it seems pos­si­ble,” Nils Larsen writes at the Inter­na­tion­al Ski­ing His­to­ry Asso­ci­a­tion, “dates back 10,000 years or more, iden­ti­fy­ing a point of ori­gin (or ori­gins) will be dif­fi­cult at best.” Such dis­cus­sions tend to get “bogged down in pol­i­tics and nation­al pride,” Larsen writes. For exam­ple, “since the emer­gence of ski­ing in greater Europe in the late 1800s” — as a sport and pure­ly recre­ation­al activ­i­ty — “Nor­way has often been con­sid­ered the birth­place of ski­ing. Nor­way has pro­mot­ed this view and it is a point of nation­al pride.”

Despite its ear­li­est records of ski­ing dat­ing mil­len­nia lat­er than oth­er regions, Nor­way has some claim. The word ski is, after all, Nor­we­gian, derived from Old Norse skíð, mean­ing “cleft wood” or “stick.” And the best-pre­served ancient skis ever found have been dis­cov­ered in a Nor­we­gian ice field. “Even the bind­ings are most­ly intact,” notes Kot­tke. The first ski, believed to be 1300 years old, turned up in 2014, found by the Glac­i­er Arche­ol­o­gy Pro­gram (GAP) in the moun­tains of Inn­lan­det Coun­ty, Nor­way. The archae­ol­o­gists decid­ed to wait, let the ice melt, and see if the oth­er ski would appear. It did, just recent­ly, and in the video above, you can watch the researchers pull it from the ice.

Pho­to: Andreas Christof­fer Nils­son,

“Mea­sur­ing about 74 inch­es long and 7 inch­es wide,” notes Livia Ger­shon at Smith­son­ian, “the sec­ond ski is slight­ly larg­er than its mate. Both fea­ture raised footholds. Leather straps and twist­ed birch bark bind­ings found with the skis would have been attached through holes in the footholds. The new ski shows signs of heavy wear and even­tu­al repairs.” The two skis are not iden­ti­cal, “but we should not expect them to be,” says archae­ol­o­gist Lars Pilø. “The skis are hand­made, not mass-pro­duced. They have a long and indi­vid­ual his­to­ry of wear and repair before an Iron Age ski­er used them togeth­er and they end­ed up in the ice.”

The new ski answered ques­tions the researchers had about the first dis­cov­ery, such as how the ancient skis might have main­tained for­ward motion uphill. “A fur­row on the under­side along the length of the ski, as you find on oth­er pre­his­toric skis (and on mod­ern cross-coun­try skis), would solve the ques­tion,” they write, and the sec­ond ski con­tained such a fur­row. While they may nev­er prove that Nor­way invent­ed ski­ing, as glac­i­er ice melts and new arti­facts appear each year, the team will learn much more about ancient Nor­we­gian skiers and their way of life. See their cur­rent dis­cov­er­ies and fol­low their future progress at the Secrets of the Ice web­site and on their YouTube chan­nel.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Archae­ol­o­gists Find the Ear­li­est Work of “Abstract Art,” Dat­ing Back 73,000 Years

Watch an Archae­ol­o­gist Play the “Litho­phone,” a Pre­his­toric Instru­ment That Let Ancient Musi­cians Play Real Clas­sic Rock

Medieval Ten­nis: A Short His­to­ry and Demon­stra­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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