Rock carvings at Alta

Infobox World Heritage Site
WHS = Rock Art of Alta

State Party = NOR
Type = Cultural
Criteria = iii
ID = 352
Region = Europe and North America
Year = 1985
Session = 9th
Link =
The Rock carvings at Alta are part of an archaeological site near the town of Alta in the county of Finnmark in northern Norway. Since the first carvings — or more correctly, the petroglyphs — were discovered in 1972, more than 5000 carvings have been found on several sites around Alta. The main site, located at Jiepmaluokta about 4 kilometers outside of Alta, contains around 3000 individual carvings and has been turned into an open-air museum. The site was placed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites on 3 December, 1985. It is Norway's only prehistoric World Heritage Site.

The earliest carvings in the area date to around 4200 BC; the most recent carvings are generally dated to around 500 BC, although some researchers believe carving continued until around 500 AD Fact|date=October 2007. The wide variety of imagery shows a culture of hunter-gatherers that was able to control herds of reindeer, was adept at boat building and fishing and practiced shamanistic rituals involving bear worship and other venerated animals. Apart from the visual evidence of the carvings themselves, not much is known about the culture that produced these carvings, although it has been speculated that the carvers might have been descendants of the Komsa culture Fact|date=October 2007. Some researchers also hold the belief that the Sami people are descendants of the carvers Fact|date=October 2007.

Cultural and historical background

At the time the carvings were created, northern Norway was inhabited by a culture of hunter-gatherers that are thought to be descendants of the Komsa culture, a stone age culture that expanded along the Norwegian coast following receding glaciation during the late ice age around 8000 BC. The period of almost 5000 years over which carvings were created at the site saw many cultural changes, including the adoption of metal tools and advances in areas such as boat building and fishing techniques; therefore, the carvings show a wide variety of mundane imagery and religious symbolism. Rock carvings especially from the earliest period show great similarity with carvings from northwestern Russia, indicating contact between and maybe parallel development of cultures over a wide area of Europe's extreme North.

Connections between the carvers' culture and the Komsa and Sami are somewhat conjectural; in the case of the Komsa, it is interesting to note that according to archaeological evidence, the Komsa economy was almost exclusively based on seal hunting while no known carvings of seals exist in the Alta area Fact|date=October 2007. However, since both cultures coexisted in virtually the same geographical area for almost two thousand years, some form of contact between the cultures is highly probableFact|date=September 2007. Connections to Sami culture are easier to establish since it is generally assumed that the cultural identity of the Sami developed in modern-day Finnmark in the timeframe of the most recent Alta carvings and many traditional decorative elements on Sami tools and musical instruments bear a striking resemblance to some of the Alta carvings. In the absence of either DNA records or linguistic evidence, all conjectures about possible relationships between the cultures must remain speculative.

Alta's rock carvings were created using quartzite chisels that were probably driven by hammers made from some harder rocks; probable examples of chisels have been found throughout the area and are on display in Alta Museum. The technique of using rock chisels seems to have been continued even after metal tools came into use in the area.

Due to the effects of post-glacial rebound, the whole of Scandinavia started to rise at a considerable rate out of the ocean after the end of the last ice age. While this effect is still noticeable today (at a speed of about 1 cm per year), it is thought to have been much more rapid and probably even noticeable during the lifetime of individual humans during the time Alta's rock drawings were created. It is thought that most carvings were originally located directly on the shoreline and were gradually lifted to their present-day positions several dozen meters inland.

Discovery and restoration

The first carvings were discovered in autumn 1972 in the area of Jiepmaluokta (a Sami language name meaning "bay of seals"), about 4 kilometers from the town center of Alta. During the 1970s, many more carvings were discovered all around Alta, with a noticeably higher density around Jiepmaluokta (of around 5000 known carvings in the area, more than 3000 are located there). A system of wooden gangways totaling about 3 kilometers was constructed in the Jiepmaluokta area during the second half of the 1980s, and Alta's museum was moved from its previous location in the town center to the site of the rock carvings in 1991. Although several other sites around Alta are known and new carvings are constantly discovered, Jiepmaluokta remains the only publicly accessible site.

Most rocks around Alta are overgrown with a thick growth of moss and lichen; once carvings have been discovered, these plants are carefully removed and the rock is cleaned to expose the full extent of the carvings. The carvings are then photographed and entered into a filing system; on most sites, no special precautions are taken to keep carvings visible once they have been properly documented (other than protecting the area from construction work, special care for preserving carvings is not necessary since they are generally rather deeply carved into a hard rock surface). Only in areas accessible to the public are the carvings filled with a special red-ochre paint that helps recognize the carvings and is thought to be similar to the original appearance of the carvings.

Alta Museum

Alta Museum features a display of objects found in the area thought to be related to the culture that created the carvings, a photographic documentation of the carvings, and several other displays on Sami culture, the phenomenon of Aurora Borealis and the area's history during World War II. The museum received the European Museum of the Year Award in 1993.

Imagery and interpretations

Since no written records exist from the period the carvings were created, there is no way to know what purposes they were meant to serve and what spurred their creation. Possible explanations include use in shamanistic ritualsFact|date=October 2007, totemistic symbols that denoted tribal unity or marked a tribe's territory Fact|date=October 2007, a kind of historical record of important eventsFact|date=October 2007, or even simple artistic pleasureFact|date=October 2007. Since individual carvings show such a wide array of different images and the carvings were created over an extremely long period of time, it seems plausible that individual carvings might have served any of the purposes listed above. Some of the more common types of images are listed below:


A wide array of animals are depicted on carved scenes; among them, reindeer are clearly predominant and are often shown in large herds that are alternatively nurtured and hunted. Depictions of reindeer behind fences and images that might be explained as a sort of caravan seem to indicate that a certain control over these animals existed from a very early ageFact|date=October 2007. Other animals that appear frequently are moose, various bird species and different kinds of fish. Pregnant animals are often depicted with a young one visible inside of its mother.

It seems curious that according to archaeological evidence, 30 to 95 % of the carvers' food came from the sea but fish and fishing scenes only appear in about 1 % of known carvings; possible explanations for this fact are that fishing in coastal waters is a far less difficult and dangerous undertaking than hunting large animals and therefore rituals ensuring success are not seen as necessary by fishermen, or that land animals played a larger role in cults and were therefore depicted more frequently for their religious significance (of course, both explanations can be interrelated).Fact|date=October 2007


Bears seem to have played a special role in the carvers' culture: they feature prominently in many carvings and frequently appear not only as animals to be hunted but are also often depicted in positions that seem to indicate that bears were worshipped in some form of cult (which seems very plausible since bear cults are known in many old cultures of northwestern Russia as well as in Sami culture).Fact|date=October 2007 Of special interest are the tracks left by bears: while all other animals and humans are frequently depicted with tracks trailing horizontally behind them (thus creating a sort of plane or world on which the action takes place), bears seem to be the only animals depicted that are occasionally shown with tracks leading vertically through the carved image and crossing the horizontal tracks of other animals. This has led some researchers to speculate that bears might have been in some way connected with a cult of the afterlife (or death in general) since the vertical tracks seem to indicate an ability of bears to pass between different layers of the world. The depiction of bears seems to have ceased around 1700 BC; this might indicate a change in religious beliefs around that time.

Hunting and Fishing scenes

By far the most scenes depicting humans show hunters stalking their prey; these scenes have traditionally been explained as being connected to hunting rituals, although current researchers seem to favor more complicated explanations that see depictions of different hunting and fishing actions as symbols for individual tribes and the interrelations of different hunting and fishing carvings as symbolic representations of existing or wished-for inter-tribal relations. The use of throwing spears and of bows and arrows is evident from the earliest period, indicating that the use of these tools was known to the carvers' culture from a very early time. Similarly, fishermen are almost exclusively shown using fishing-lines, indicating that a method of creating hooks and using bait was known to the carvers.

Of special interest is the depiction of boats: while small fishing boats appear from the earliest drawings onward, later drawings show larger and larger boats, some carrying up to 30 people and being equipped with elaborate, animal-shaped decorations on bow and stern that are sometimes reminiscent of those found on viking longboats. This, along with the fact that similar carvings of large boats have been found in coastal regions in southern Norway, seems to indicate long distance voyages along the coast from either directionFact|date=October 2007.

cenes of mundane life and scenes of rituals

It is especially difficult to judge the meaning of scenes showing interactions between humans; scenes apparently showing a dance, the preparation of food or sexual interactions might also display the performance of rituals. Additionally, even if these carvings in fact do show episodes from mundane life, it remains mysterious why these specific scenes were carved into rock. Depictions of sexuality might be connected to fertility rituals, scenes that show people cooking and preparing food might have been meant to ensure an abundance of food.Fact|date=October 2007 Some scenes clearly show different societal positions of the humans depicted, indicated by peculiar headgear and by more prominent positions of wearers of special headgear among their fellow humans; these have alternatively been explained as priests or shamans or as rulers of a tribeFact|date=October 2007. If the interpretation of prominent persons as rulers is correct, these scenes might also display events of historical significance, such as the ascension of a ruler, royal marriages or diplomatic relations between tribes.Fact|date=October 2007

Geometric symbols

Among the most mysterious of the carvings are a set of geometric symbols, found predominantly among the oldest carvings of the area. Some of these are circular objects, some of which are surrounded by fringes, others show intricate patterns of horizontal and vertical lines. While some of these objects have been explained as tools or similar objects (the line patterns, for example, are sometimes explained as fishing nets), most of these symbols remain unexplainable.

ee also

*Gobustan State Reserve
*Pre-historic art
*History of Norway
*List of World Heritage Sites in Europe
*Rock carvings in Central Norway
*Rock carvings at Tennes (in Balsfjord, Troms, Norway)


*Arvid Sveen, "Helleristninger. Hjemmeluft, Alta". Vadsø 1996 (ISBN 82-993932-2-1)
*Øivind Stenersen/Ivar Libæk, "The History of Norway". Lysaker 2003 (ISBN 82-8071-041-8)

External links

* [ Alta Museum website]
* [ Norway State of Environment webpage about the carvings]
* [ Norway before the Vikings] - Research paper detailing Norway's early history.

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