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Evolution of Skiing – The First Skis

Skis Have Been Used in the Gällivare Area since 1000 Years Before Christ

The ancient Suorravuoma-ski. Photo: Håkan Svensson

In the picture you can see the ancient Suorravuoma skis, which can be seen in the Gällivare Museum. This priceless artifact shows just how long skiing has been practiced in the area. The ski was found in a bog in Suorravuoma outside of Ulatti, which is now known as Martinvaara. It’s dated between 2000 and 3000 years old.  “The ski was found in the 40s, and was dated using pollen analysis,” says Karina Jarrett, head of the Gällivare Museum and municipal assisstant curator.

Myrfyndet, which was made by Per Simu Björkberg and his father Henrik Simu, gives an exciting and somewhat magical view of ski manufacturing during this time.
The Simus found the ski 30 centimeters below the surface, mixed in with peat, moss and sedge.

“A sample of the pollen analysis from the site shows that the ski was buried at a time when trees first began to appear in the area,” says Kjell-Åke Aronsson, head of the Ajtte Museum in Jokkmokk. “This puts it at between 2000 and 3000 years of age. We can’t be any more accurate than that. The ski, with its elevated pedestal, is an early version of the type of ski used as recently as 100 years ago.”

The ski is kept in a secure case in Gällivare Museum, and is extremely well-preserved due to being buried in a bog. Jarrett and her colleague Carola Johansson very carefully removed the ski from its case in order for me to photograph it.

Karina Jarrett, Head of the Gällivare Museum. Photo: Håkan Svensson

Using the tape measure, we determine the ski to be 132 cm by 11 cm. Not a long ski by any means. It’s also impossible to determine who used the ski. The ski is made from a single piece of pine, and the middle of the ski is wider by about six centimeters. There’s also a hole carved in the center, possibly for a leather binding.

The stately brick building on the square in Gällivare houses yet another interesting ski find on its upper floors. Sharing the case with the Suorravuoma ski is a ski tip with an interesting striped pattern, found by Israel Persson in 1925 while digging trenches in Purnu.

“The ski tip is estimated to be around 3000 years old,” says Jarrett, “and displays the Bothnia-type ribbon and cable pattern characteristic of the area.”

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The Ski tip. Photo: Håkan Svensson

This ski tip is described in even greater detail in the book “Övre Norrlands Järnålder” (“Iron Age Upper Norrland”) by Inga Serning. Another important ski-related find is a “skidkälksmedar”, a type of travois used for transporting large goods over the snowy landscape with ease. These were also unearthed while digging ditches, this time in the mosses of Skaulo, and are dated at about 700 years of age.

Old skis are most often found in bogs and marshes, where the conditions are excellent for preservation over the millennia. The oldest Swedish ski is the Kalvträsk Ski, over 5000 years old and can be found in the Ski Museum in Umeå. The ski, which has a hole bored the entire way through it, was found by some ditch-diggers in Kalvträsk. The reason these skis are so perfectly preserved is that there’s no oxygen in these bogs, which is what causes wood to deteriorate in the first place.

Skiing is an ancient way of getting around in the winter. Though it’s unclear who was the first to develop and use skis, it’s indisputable that its roots lie in Sami culture. Dating back to the first descriptions of people in Lapland (not least Gällivare parish), it’s clear that there was a lot of admiration for how these people moved around on the snow, armed with spears, bows, arrows, and other weapons. These descriptions even mention different lengths of skis, including shorter ones with animal skins underneath which were used for climbing slopes.

These days, people use skins mainly to avoid sliding backwards, a technique which the Sami have been using for thousands of years, if not longer. The longer skis were used for faster gliding over easier terrain.

Naturally, one required tremendous leg strength and endurance to use these long skis over long distances, and for long periods of time.
For a long time, the Sami made their own skis, the knowledge of which they then spread to others. It quickly became apparent that different types of skis were needed for different environments, such as the deep drifts in the forests, or the hard-packed snow of the mountains.

Håkan Svensson (text and photos)

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