Dispatched from the Ice by Whitney Brown

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A snowy hill with a party cloudy blue sky

The vehicles slowed, then stopped, then parked on the side of the highway. We spilled out, grabbed our lunches, shivered like leaves in the wind. Passing drivers probably found it strange, our interest in that spot. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe they zoomed past us without a second thought.

But I knew this was special, that I’d see something extraordinary beyond the guardrail. The outing mattered to me, more than I could have expressed, and I’d gone well out of my way to be there. Standing on those golden-brown hills, spending time with that group, I felt like an archaeologist, and I’d wanted that for years.

The others and I huddled near Dr. Craig Lee, who said we would zigzag our way to five ice patches: three small, two large.

Off we went.

I had joined a group of about 20 people, mostly archaeologists, at a location we all promised not to disclose. What I can write is that we spent the day in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We left a Montana resort early in the morning, and from there, we zoomed past bison, past gold aspens and white pines and the tree line, then parked at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet. We set out on foot for the ice patches.

Like glaciers, ice patches are accumulations of snow and ice, and like glaciers, ice patches are melting all over the world. But unlike glaciers, ice patches have never moved, never flowed downhill. Because of this, many ice patches have preserved organic materials—animal remains, and artifacts made from wood or leather or bone—without shredding or grating or otherwise destroying them.

The first major ice patch find was Ötzi the Iceman, a mummy discovered by chance in the Alps in 1991. His body had lain in the snow for more than 5,000 years, but then he had melted out, returning to a different world from the one he’d known.

And that world was changing again, still, rapidly. Since Ötzi’s re-emergence, the atmosphere’s concentration of greenhouse gases has risen, which means the climate has changed, which means perennial ice has melted, which means ice patch archaeology has taken off. In recent years, ice patch projects have yielded artifacts like a 1,500-year-old rope (Mongolia), a 1,700-year-old tunic (Norway), and a 3,500-year-old food container (Switzerland).

It isn’t easy to recover artifacts from the ice. Location is one major obstacle, since ice patches are usually found in remote areas with challenging conditions. Even more troubling is the possibility that an artifact could decay once it’s exposed, or that meltwater could carry it away. To have any chance of retrieving an artifact, archaeologists need to be on site shortly after it emerges from the ice. They usually do their fieldwork in the summer or early fall, when something incredible just might repose on the slush.

The odds that we would find an artifact that day were low, but Craig asked us to keep our eyes out, just in case.

We walked atop forage and grasses, the landscape brown and the vegetation short. Our group members hiked at different paces, but six or seven of us clustered around Craig. Occasionally, he paused to point out a cricket or an aster, and we gathered to study those things. After a moment, the others moved on, and when I realized they had drifted away, I rushed after them. I wanted to observe anything—everything—they deemed worthy of observing.

In high school, my human geography class had made me consider a career in archaeology, and I had kept that hope alive, like a tiny flame, for several years. Then, during my first semester of college, I’d enrolled in Intro to Archaeology. The subjects of those lectures—from Hawkes’s ladder to Ötzi’s body—struck me as magical, almost holy. I liked that archaeology offered a way of looking into the past; more than that, I loved that archaeology allowed sundry pieces of individual lives to mean something. The whole discipline intrigued, fascinated, bewitched me.

But I knew archaeologists often needed a doctorate, and the thought of getting a Ph.D., of the commitment that would entail, scared me. So instead, I studied journalism and became a travel writer. At my first real job, I wrote about archaeology whenever my editor let me, but as I wrote more about the world and its people, new topics began to saturate my brain. Climate change, mainly: melting ice, extreme heat, sea level rise. Also, environmental justice, which recognizes that climate change most affects marginalized groups, and which advocates for those people. I felt saddest and angriest when I thought of them—people whose ancestral lands had been colonized, people who didn’t necessarily have my skin color or other privileges.

Then I read my first article about ice patch archaeology. It let me understand my old friend Ötzi in a new way, and with the emphasis it placed on artifacts, and on their intersection with climate change, it hooked me. So a couple of years later, during my third semester in an MFA program, I joined some archaeologists for a field trip.

After we’d hiked for a few minutes, we reached the first ice patch. It didn’t look like much, and if I’d found it on my own, I wouldn’t have known what it was. It wasn’t much larger than a lap pool, and I can only describe its shape by invoking a math-test polygon. (Think: shape that doesn’t abide by simple labels. Think: find the area of Figure A.) All of the ice looked thin and scabby, but it was thinnest and scabbiest in the center. A meltwater pond, located just downhill, caught the ice patch’s runoff.

I was happy to see the ice patch, but I didn’t think it would recover, and one of the archaeologists seemed to feel the same way. She grumbled that the ice would probably vanish the following summer.

Slick, sludgy mud, shot through with grass, encircled the ice and the meltwater. Our feet squelched with every step, and as we walked around, someone told Craig that his shoelace had come undone. He retied it and said he was glad he hadn’t fallen: The mud was actually a “fecal aggregate,” containing centuries’ worth of animal droppings.

I forbade myself from tripping, slipping, or sliding.

We continued around the ice, then hiked toward the second and third ice patches. At each stop, we walked around the ice’s margins and looked for anything eye-catching. We found several of what the archaeologists called “social artifacts”: pull tabs, old labels, a casserole tin. But we didn’t pick up the items, like good hikers normally do, because Craig didn’t want to sanitize the archaeological record. Those items had something to say about the land’s history and use, he implied (or at least, I inferred). To remove them would be to rewrite that story, to modify how future archaeologists would study 20th- and 21st-century Americans.

We also found animal bones, large and small. The bones in the best condition rested on the ice, while the brittle, bleached ones lay atop rocks or mud. Regardless of their condition, the bones always sparked conversations between the archaeologists, who asked questions like whether they were looking at a mandible or a maxilla. At one point, a man called uphill for an osteological expert named Beth, who came to his side to confirm that yes, bison really had thoracic spines that long.

Craig watched as everyone walked around the ice. Whenever he wanted to go on, he shouted, “Hey, guys! Let’s keep moving!”

Someone joked that Craig had promised a level walk across the landscape. “Well, this is level,” Craig replied. “It’s a relative ‘level.’” Everyone in my group laughed. But then we hiked over a saddle and in the thin air, our lungs strained and our conversations slowed. No more talk of grasshopper gonads, or distant rocks that looked like bighorn sheep, or how (in a pinch) Jetboil’d water could coax artifacts out of the ice. Instead, we stepped, panted. Stepped. Panted. Made our way over the saddle. Made our way toward the big-deal ice patches.

Then I saw them, a sprawling ice patch just below us and a crescent-shaped one on a slope to our left. We had made it, and I knew that soon, when the others had climbed over the saddle, Craig would tell us about the artifacts he’d recovered there—right there! And then we would walk across the ice patches, and maybe, just maybe, they would speak to me.

But first: lunch.

Leaning against some rocks, I unwrapped my sandwich. A woman named Lisa, who had been taking pictures and recording audio, sat beside me. She was a writer too, so we discussed her work in progress, a book about ice patches.

More people made it to our makeshift lunchroom, and more and more conversations sprang up. One woman said Craig’s work seemed labor intensive; after all, British golf course employees could find 4,000-year-old caskets in water hazards. She wasn’t exaggerating, either—the casket story had made headlines earlier that week.

Another archaeologist said, “Yeah, but where would you rather be, a golf pond in England or here?”

“Good point,” she replied as a few lakes shone blue in the valley below us. The wind warbled, but even with its pushing and pulling, the clouds barely moved. They floated on air like lilies on a pond.

At last, when the entire group had arrived, someone asked for the ice patches’ story. Craig stood up to address us, joking that if he fell backward and died, we should leave his body there. It could become part of the archaeological record.

Craig said he’d stepped into ice patch archaeology in the early 2000s. He’d done fieldwork during blizzards, and he’d taken flying lessons so he could scout ice from above. He had applied for funding and permits (so much paperwork, he said), and in 2007, he had visited these ice patches—the ones right in front of us—to take pictures for a proposal. That day, he’d happened upon a meter-long projectile, which a Paleoindian hunter had once launched from an atlatl.

When Craig analyzed the projectile, he learned it had been made 10,000 years earlier. It’s the oldest artifact ever recovered from an ice patch, but what’s just as remarkable is the fact that it’s notched with sets of parallel lines—ownership marks. Almost like the hunter had inscribed his initials there.

Craig told us he wasn’t very spiritual, but finding the projectile had been, perhaps, the most spiritual experience of his life. When other people learned about it, it resonated with them, too. I understood. The artifact came from several millennia ago, long before industrialization, even before colonization, and if my college lectures had struck me as holy, then of course the projectile did, too.

On another occasion, Craig went on, he had arranged for specialists to drill into the crescent-shaped ice patch, which would tell him more about its depth and age. Craig’s daughters had tagged along that day, and they had wandered around looking for bones. But instead, they’d found an old basket. Craig hadn’t known if he should help the ice-coring team or recover the artifact, but as he struggled with the decision, several more archaeologists showed up, unbidden, like they’d been drawn to the spot. While the ice-coring team drilled, the archaeologists wrapped the basket in plastic sheets they took from their backpacks.

The ice core analysis confirmed, later, that the patch was 10,000 years old.

For its part, the basket turned out to be 1,300 years old, and Craig said he’d studied it with an archaeologist named Ed, an enrolled member of the Muscogee and Oglala nations, who wasn’t on the field trip with us. But Craig seemed to appreciate Ed’s deeper connection to the continent, and the circularity, the rightness, of his studying that artifact.

Craig finished his story, then invited us to walk around the ice patches. He invited us to walk on them—to look for bones, to look for artifacts.

To get a sense for ice patch archaeology.


I started at the sprawling ice patch, the one that hadn’t yielded the projectile or the basket. Its surface sloped, but gently, so walking on the ice wasn’t too difficult.

First, like a child squatting in mud, I crouched near the upper margin. Air pockets rose to the surface, hissing like soda bubbles. Twiggy stems and dark brown leaves flecked the ice, or else flowed away in the meltwater.

When I stood up, I moved carefully: toe, heel, toe, heel. But no matter how slowly I walked, I displaced slush, and my shoes dug into the soft ice.

I went toward the lower margin. There, meltwater had run together from all over the ice patch, from its top and middle, its outer edges and inner layers. The water flashed in the sunlight, rolled downhill, ran into a meltwater lake.

I longed to know what it all meant, longed to know what the ice patch was saying. The ice was shrinking, summer by summer, and I had probably walked above unseen artifacts. Maybe my footsteps had vibrated through the ice; maybe the artifacts had felt the snow shifting. A month or two after our visit, I knew, fresh snow would fall, but that snow would melt the next summer, and so would much of the older ice. Eventually, the artifacts would emerge. Archaeologists like Craig might manage to recover them, but if not, humans would never see them again.

So I wondered: Did ice have a memory? The patches seemed to remember the people who had once lived in the area. They held onto those people’s belongings, and they bound material culture to something metaphysical, some whispered message about what it meant to be human, what it meant to be ice, what it meant to exist on Earth. The ice patches had remembered so much for so long—and now, if they risked forgetting everything, risked melting into lakes, then evaporating into clouds, I’d remember them. I’d try to understand.

So I made my way to the crescent-shaped ice patch, the one that had preserved the basket and the projectile. Lisa stood near the top of the slope, and when she descended, I went up. The ice was slick, so I walked on the rocks beside it, and as Lisa and I crossed paths, we exchanged a few words. She said she’d tried to picture the hunter who lost the projectile.

I wanted to see the hunter too, but I couldn’t make sense of the sights and sounds and textures around us. From the top of the ice patch, I looked at the snow, the meltwater streams, the people-dots. Encircled by wind, I heard scraps of conversation.

If only more people knew about the ice patches.

If only I could find the right way to describe them.

But the field trip was different from my usual experiences, from anything my white ancestors had lived. The ice patches weren’t part of my lineage or language, even though I wanted to listen.

As I looked at the lakes, I wondered if white archaeologists were the best people to lead the recovery efforts. If they were the best ones to interpret artifacts found on historical Crow, Cheyenne, and Sioux territory.

I came down from my viewpoint, then crossed a meltwater stream. I took some pictures, took some videos. But I kept thinking about what the ice patches were saying. And I kept wondering why I couldn’t understand.

In a 2021 book titled Pollution is Colonialism, Red River Métis/Michif geographer Max Liboiron defines Land, with a capital L, as “the unique entity that is the combined living spirit of plants, animals, air, water, humans, histories, and events recognized by many Indigenous communities.” Later, Liboiron writes that “colonialism, first, foremost, and always, is about Land… The focus on Land… does not always mean accessing Land as property for settlement… It means imagining things for land in ways that align with colonial and settler goals, even when those goals are well intentioned.”

From the moment the field trip began, the archaeologists had struck me as sincere and humble and kind. I liked them, and I believed their intentions were good. But I live on land taken by people who look(ed) like me. My opinion of the archaeologists’ intentions doesn’t mean much.

What I can say, I hope without arrogance, is that I’m relieved the artifacts are being recovered. I’m relieved Native American culture is being safeguarded, at least in this way, against climate change. I’m grateful that I climbed those slopes. That I saw the ice, the lakes, the landscape.

The other thing I’d like to say, the one I’m still puzzling out, is that the ice patches might be beings. In their own right: agents. And if that’s the case, they must want to ensure the artifacts’ recovery. Maybe they’ve been calling humans to their side, subtly and quietly. Know me, I think they’re saying. Know what I know.

How else could Craig have found the projectile? How else could the basket have been saved?


We trekked back to the highway. The next day, I drove home, far from the ice patches, and tried to tell my family and friends about what I’d seen. Everyone seemed interested, but I could tell my descriptions fell short. None of my words conveyed the something big, the something more, I’d sensed up there.

A few weeks later, I gave a presentation about the field trip in one of my classes, and another student asked how ice patch archaeologists regarded climate change. Were they secretly rooting for it? Did they want the ice to melt faster, so they could find more artifacts?

No, I responded, fumbling toward words that felt right. The archaeologists wished the bones and baskets could remain in the ice. But those things were emerging anyway. Ice patch archaeology struck me as an act of recovery, an attempt to catch falling pieces as the climate broke down. I felt grateful the ice had safeguarded those objects, and awed it was passing the objects along.

I wanted to widen my mind, to think of all that had lived on Earth—the people and bison, the crickets and asters, the atlatls and baskets. Also, the ice and water. But this planet is greater than my capacity to understand.

So instead, I listen, even when I don’t understand. Because to listen is to show love.

If nothing else, I’m sure of that.

Meet the Contributor

whitney brown in knit winter beanie and coat in front of colorful city sceneWhitney Brown is a travel writer from Utah. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction in 2022, and most of her work considers how climate change affects people and places around the world. When she’s not traveling or writing, she’s often reading, hiking, or spending time at the park.

Image Source: Neil Williamson / Flickr Creative Commons

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