Bones from a mammoth were found in this Norwegian well. Researchers are now looking for the rest of it 

Findings on the Norwegian farm could provide new answers about what happened during the last Ice Age.

About 20,000 years ago, the previous Ice Age was at its coldest. Norway was covered in thick ice. Glaciers ate away most traces of the time that came before.

There is much that experts do not know about nature and wildlife in Norway during the Ice Age before the ice cover swallowed everything.

It is likely that Ice Age animals like horses, bison, cave lions, saiga antelopes, or woolly rhinoceroses were here, but researchers have not found them.

But we know there were mammoths here. There have been 23 mammoth finds in Norway. Most of these finds consist of teeth or tusks, while only four finds are skeletal remains.

One of these was found at Nordre Sæter farm, a short drive from the centre of Lillehammer in southern Norway.

In 1955, a farmer found two bone fragments identified as parts of a mammoth shoulder blade.

Could more of the mammoth remain buried? Researchers are now determined to find out.

On May 6th, an excavation at the farm in Lillehammer began.

In 1955, Severin Blessum found pieces of mammoth bone.

Here, the farmer manually dug a well.

Eight metres below ground, two strange shapes jutted out and were knocked loose from the hard soil wall.

Blessum sent the pieces to the Paleontological Museum in Oslo.

First dig visited the farm as the excavator made its first cut into the ground.

The farm is idyllically situated, overlooking Norway’s largest lake, Mjøsa. A short distance up a hill lies the well where the mammoth remains were found 70 years ago.

Soil is being removed just behind the well. The team plans to dig several metres down in multiple layers.

The excavation will be completed in a week, after which the soil will be returned.

“It’s very exciting to start this project and reach the excavation site,” says Finn Audun Grøndahl, project manager for the excavation.

He is a conservator at the Randsfjord Museum. Grøndahl has long wanted to investigate the place where the bones were found.

The soil has not been touched since the well was made in the 1950s.

“We need to dig down there to find the answers. It's the only way to do it,” he says.

More of the skeleton to find?

“It would be amazing if we found a whole mammoth,” says Anne Karin Hufthammer.

She is a professor emeritus at the University of Bergen and is involved in the project as an expert on skeletal material.

Such a find has never been made in Norway before.

“But very often we find only one bone at a time. Often, the skeleton is washed down a river, for example, and the bones settle in different places,” says Hufthammer.

It is not entirely certain that a shoulder blade was found. It could be part of a pelvis or a skull, according to Hufthammer.

There is also a possibility that the bone fragments belong to another species, like a woolly rhinoceros or another large Ice Age animal. The excavation will be able to provide clarity.

“It's not entirely certain that the remains found were from a mammoth's shoulder blade,” said Anne Karin Hufthammer.

Searching for DNA in the soil

Several aspects make the excavation particularly exciting, Grøndahl believes.

The mammoth bone was reportedly found in a fine-grained material described by the finder as blue clay.

“Fine particles can preserve skeletons, DNA from plants and animals, as well as pollen,” says Grøndahl.

Other mammoth remains found in Norway have mostly been located in coarser material left behind by glaciers.

Researchers will collect samples from soil layers dating back to the Ice Age, which will be analysed for traces of DNA and pollen.

The idea of finding ancient DNA in soil alone is relatively new.

Horse, wolf, or plants

With these possibilities, the researchers hope the excavation can contribute to a broader understanding of the environment and landscape at the time when mammoths roamed.

What kind of plants existed here, and are there traces of other animals?

“For instance, we’d like to find evidence of horses, wolves, or other animals that lived here during the Ice Age. We’re fairly certain they were here, but we haven’t found them yet,” says Hufthammer.

Many species haven't been discovered, according to both Grøndahl and Hufthammer.

A few ancient remains of reindeer, mammoths, and musk oxen have been found, but not other large Ice Age animals. Some birds have been located, but only along the coast. Small animals are also absent.

“If we're really lucky, this location could be a major new doorway we can open,” says Grøndahl.

Finn Audun Grøndahl is the project manager for the excavation.

Mild periods

The last Ice Age lasted from 117,000 to 11,700 years ago, says Mona Henriksen, an associate professor at NMBU.

Norway was not covered in thick ice the entire time. There were multiple glaciations and mild periods, according the researcher, who works with geology from the ice ages.

“We're particularly interested in those mild periods,” she says.

During these intervals, vegetation and wildlife likely spread again.

About 60,000 years ago, it was extremely cold, followed by a milder spell before the Ice Age reached its maximum. Mammoth remains have been found from the first part of this period, Hufthammer explains.

The mammoth shoulder bone is dated to be between 40,000 and 50,000 years old.

During this time, there may have been a steppe landscape with rich wildlife in parts of southeastern Norway.

The mammoth steppe was shaped by a cold, dry climate and characterised by herbs, grasses, some shrubs, and trees. This type of landscape stretched across much of northern Asia, Europe, and North America.

“Our primary goal is to find as much as possible of the Ice Age flora and fauna. Does it resemble what we traditionally think of as a mammoth steppe?” asks Finn Audun Grøndahl.

The excavation is underway.

A find could be significant

Henriksen explains that they reconstruct the events of the last Ice Age based on existing finds.

“But we don't really have many finds. There aren’t many sites in Norway that date back, for example, 50,000 years. A new discovery could change a lot,” Henriksen says.

Hufthammer agrees.

“It doesn't take much to uncover revolutionary new knowledge. Suddenly, you might have to draw a completely different map,” she says.

The glaciers that covered Norway 20,000 years ago eroded many traces. There was less erosion in Innlandet, where most mammoth finds have been made.

“There are some deposits scattered here and there, but you need to find them. They’re often buried under a moraine layer,” says Henriksen.

Moraines are deposits of loose rock material left behind after a glacier melts.

Mona Henriksen is an expert in Quaternary geology.

Hoping for a layer of soil

The researchers emphasize the importance of documenting the differences in layers and stones as they dig deeper, as this provides insights into the site's history dating back to the Ice Age.

Henriksen shares some of what they hope to find.

“Closer to Lillehammer, investigations in the 1980s showed several moraine layers,” she says.

If a moraine remains exposed long enough without being covered by ice again, it weathers, creating finer particles and eventually soil.

“There was also a layer of soil or at least a weathering layer, suggesting a surface. We hope to find a similar layer here. Our hypothesis is that the mammoth find was in that layer. That's what we're hoping for,” she says.

The hunt

Finn Audun Grøndahl mentions that everyone on the team was excited for the excavations to begin.

“I was actually a bit apprehensive,” he says.


“It's like a hunt. And on a hunt, you don't always catch something,” he says.


Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik

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