Thursday, 9 February 2012

Landscape under snow

A couple of my friends posted photos onto Facebook after this weekend’s snowfall in Rome. The newspapers printed pictures of Colosseum under snow – with some brave Italians driving on the main road curving by it. However, the Italians are well used to snow since many people living in Rome are from small towns on a higher ground in central Italy where snow is an annual visitor and the roads are steep and windy. Rome lies much lower nearer the sea so the snow on the uplands dow not reach urbs.

Photo by Ettore Ferrari/EPA

People – or hominids – have to have been able to deal with the snow for thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. We know from the Ötzi find that by the Bronze Age people customarily crossed the Alps and were able to dress appropriately for the conditions. They must have done this a way back since otherwise the expansion of the humans into the northern areas of the globe after the Ice Age would have been impossible. Winter weather must have existed and those mammoths needed hunting all year round. The preservation of non-organic materials only means that our perception of the Stone Age is primitive and we do not see the full skill set of ‘the Eskimos’ of the earlier time. Even the Neanderthals buried their dead so it is likely they were capable of inventing or using a bone needle and gut string.

Now whole England grinds to halt with a snowfall of 5 cm of snow. In the past the wintertime was hindering the movement of those with no means of getting proper clothing or lacking with skies or sledges and animals or humans to pull them. For appropriately geared individuals and groups moving across a landscape covered in snow is not too much of an effort. Ice cover joins large areas with each other along the coasts and it allows ice hole fishing and seal hunting around the breathing holes.

The past wintertime is mostly invisible in archaeological record and only accessible indirectly since the ice finds such as the Ötzi are not as common as for example the bog finds. It is easy to point out the cold years from the environmental record and the ice cores allow a direct access to snow volumes at certain points. In the north much of the food storage must have been meant for the wintertime and the huts and houses were essential. When we see photos of the landscapes of the famous hillforts covered in snow we get a glimpse of the winters past in the present.

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