Along Ancient Future Beaches


In the last ice age, the landmass of what is today Scandinavia was pressed into the earth’s crust under sheets of deep and unfathomably heavy ice. As soon as that ice began to recede, the land was rejected by the depths. It’s been ten thousand years since that ice age ended, but the Nordic is still rising at a rate of a few millimeters every year. This so-called post-glacial rebound has immense and long-term consequences for archaeology, and how time is perceived in relation to the landscape.

When I still worked at a museum, I used to illustrate this phenomenon to foreign tourists with a stock joke, about finding poetic justice in that the underdog nation of Norway slowly rises out of the depths, while the Danes, our old time oppressors — hyperbolically speaking — are being slowly flushed away by our North Sea, our venerable mother. Schadenfreude is a beautiful part of inter-Scandinavian jargon.

But this is changing. Denmark may well have one last chuckle before they go the way of Doggerland. You see, the rate at which the sea levels are rising is gradually accelerating. In Norway, it is expected to out-compete post-glacial rebound rather soon. While it is true that, compared to Denmark and, yikes, the aptly named Low Countries, most of Norway sits defiantly perched at a safe height above the sea, we’ve still spent the better part of the past thousand years making ourselves comfortable, and hence vulnerable, along the coastline. We emerged from a seafaring culture, so it follows that our most significant urban centers are neatly placed along the sea.

In Norway, the UNESCO heritage site of Bryggen in Bergen is widely considered the quintessential example of a future climate casualty, a Scandinavian venice, essentially. Ironically, the sea levels threatening to swallow the site will sooner or later match the sea level when king Oláfr Kyrri first established it as the future trading hub of the kingdom, soon an empire, then a province, then a nation. Past and present landscapes converge.

So far, archaeologists working with the origins of maritime livelihoods and early coastal settlement have had to look for it up in the slopes and hillsides, as much as 40 meters above the current sea level. In one apparent worst-case scenario, the sea level will rise by five meters by the year 2200. People will find themselves in the peculiar situation of returning to the coastline of the early Viking Era. Conversely, the relics left after us — their own close ancestors — will in many cases be underwater. It will be an interesting time for marine archaeologists, and once again people will swim on the beaches of the Iron Age.