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Traces of stone-age crystal hunt under threat from melting glacier

Archaeologists were dispatched this week to urgently explore a high-altitude site in the Swiss Alps where traces of a 10,000-year-old hunt for crystals risk washing away with a melting glacier.

The eastern Swiss canton of Uri said it had sent an emergency archeological mission to the Brunnifirm glacier, at an altitude of some 2,800 metres (9,100 feet) on the Oberalpstock mountain, to dig and secure a site first discovered seven years ago.

In 2013, people searching for crystals on the glacier found bits of wood, deer horn and crystal shards in a crystal crevice.

When the finds were tested, they turned out to be from the mesolithic era — making them among the oldest artifacts ever found in the Alps, Uri canton said in a statement.

Preserved away from the air by the glacier ice for thousands of years, the objects showed that people were searching for crystals around the glacier as far back as 7500 BC, it added.

“Even the smallest particle could provide valuable information,” the statement said.

But near-constant snow coverage has made it difficult for archeologists to explore the site, even as it is threatened by the melting glacier amid fast-progressing climate change in the Alps.

The site is never completely snow-free until the end of summer, and snow this year began falling again on August 30, spurring the archeologists to jump into action before the covering became too thick.

“We had to wait for exactly the right time,” glacier archaeologist Marcel Cornelissen said in the statement, pointing out that “with a thick layer of snow, digging would have made no sense.”

According to the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA), temperatures in the mountain range have risen by nearly two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the past 120 years — almost double the global average — and will continue to climb.