Rock carvings at Alta
The Rock art of Alta are located in and around the municipality of Alta
Alta, Norway
-Birdlife:For those interested in bird watching, the river outlet, known locally as Altaosen is well worth a visit. This tidal area is used as a stopover for many wetland species.-Transportation:...

 in the county of Finnmark
or Finnmárku is a county in the extreme northeast of Norway. By land it borders Troms county to the west, Finland to the south and Russia to the east, and by water, the Norwegian Sea to the northwest, and the Barents Sea to the north and northeast.The county was formerly known as Finmarkens...

 in northern Norway
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...

. Since the first carvings were discovered in 1972, more than 6000 carvings have been found on several sites around Alta. The largest locality, at Jiepmaluokta
Jiepmaluokta or Hjemmeluft is a bay in the municipality of Alta in Norway. It is the main site for the rock carvings at Alta with about 3000 individual carvings ....

 about 4 kilometers outside of Alta, contains many thousand individual carvings and has been turned into an open-air museum. The site, along with the sites Storsteinen, Kåfjord, Amtmannsnes and Transfarelv, was placed on the UNESCO
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations...

 list of World Heritage Site
World Heritage Site
A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a place that is listed by the UNESCO as of special cultural or physical significance...

s on 3 December 1985. It is Norway's only prehistoric
Prehistory is the span of time before recorded history. Prehistory can refer to the period of human existence before the availability of those written records with which recorded history begins. More broadly, it refers to all the time preceding human existence and the invention of writing...

 World Heritage Site.

The carvings was divided into four separate groups by Knut Helskog. Using shoreline dating, the earliest carvings were dated to around 4200 BC; the most recent carvings were dated to around 500 BC. In 2010 researcher Jan Magne Gjerde pushed the dates for the oldest phases back with 1000 years. The wide variety of imagery shows a culture
Culture is a term that has many different inter-related meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions...

 of hunter-gatherer
A hunter-gatherer or forage society is one in which most or all food is obtained from wild plants and animals, in contrast to agricultural societies which rely mainly on domesticated species. Hunting and gathering was the ancestral subsistence mode of Homo, and all modern humans were...

s that was able to control herd
Herd refers to a social grouping of certain animals of the same species, either wild or domestic, and also to the form of collective animal behavior associated with this or as a verb, to herd, to its control by another species such as humans or dogs.The term herd is generally applied to mammals,...

s of reindeer
The reindeer , also known as the caribou in North America, is a deer from the Arctic and Subarctic, including both resident and migratory populations. While overall widespread and numerous, some of its subspecies are rare and one has already gone extinct.Reindeer vary considerably in color and size...

, was adept at boat building and fishing
Fishing is the activity of trying to catch wild fish. Fish are normally caught in the wild. Techniques for catching fish include hand gathering, spearing, netting, angling and trapping....

 and practiced shamanistic
Shamanism is an anthropological term referencing a range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world. To quote Eliade: "A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = technique of ecstasy." Shamanism encompasses the...

A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community. The term usually excludes actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers....

s involving bear worship
Bear worship
Bear worship is the religious practice of the worshiping of bears found in many North American and North Eurasian ethnic circumpolar religions such as the Sami, Nivkh, Ainu, and pre-Christian Finns...

 and other venerated animal
Animals are a major group of multicellular, eukaryotic organisms of the kingdom Animalia or Metazoa. Their body plan eventually becomes fixed as they develop, although some undergo a process of metamorphosis later on in their life. Most animals are motile, meaning they can move spontaneously and...


Cultural and historical background

At the time the carvings were created, Norway was inhabited by hunter-gatherers. The period of almost 5000 years over which carvings were made, the people of the late stoneage and early metal age, saw many cultural changes, including the adoption of metal
A metal , is an element, compound, or alloy that is a good conductor of both electricity and heat. Metals are usually malleable and shiny, that is they reflect most of incident light...

A tool is a device that can be used to produce an item or achieve a task, but that is not consumed in the process. Informally the word is also used to describe a procedure or process with a specific purpose. Tools that are used in particular fields or activities may have different designations such...

s and changes in areas such as boat building and fishing techniques; therefore, the carvings show a wide variety of imagery and religious symbolism. There are however some main motifs that are found throughout all the different periods, like the reindeer. Rock carvings especially from the earliest period show great similarity with carvings from northwestern Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

, indicating contact between and maybe parallel development of cultures over a wide area of Europe's extreme North.

Alta's rock carvings were probably created using quartzite
Quartzite is a hard metamorphic rock which was originally sandstone. Sandstone is converted into quartzite through heating and pressure usually related to tectonic compression within orogenic belts. Pure quartzite is usually white to gray, though quartzites often occur in various shades of pink...

A chisel is a tool with a characteristically shaped cutting edge of blade on its end, for carving or cutting a hard material such as wood, stone, or metal. The handle and blade of some types of chisel are made of metal or wood with a sharp edge in it.In use, the chisel is forced into the material...

s that were probably driven by hammer
A hammer is a tool meant to deliver an impact to an object. The most common uses are for driving nails, fitting parts, forging metal and breaking up objects. Hammers are often designed for a specific purpose, and vary widely in their shape and structure. The usual features are a handle and a head,...

s made from some harder rocks; probable examples of chisels have been found throughout the area and are on display in Alta Museum
Alta Museum
The Alta Museum is located in Alta in northern Norway within the Arctic Circle. Its northern Norway's most-visited summer museum, with more than 1,000 visitors each day...

. 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
Post-glacial rebound
Post-glacial rebound is the rise of land masses that were depressed by the huge weight of ice sheets during the last glacial period, through a process known as isostasy...

, the whole of Scandinavia
Scandinavia is a cultural, historical and ethno-linguistic region in northern Europe that includes the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, characterized by their common ethno-cultural heritage and language. Modern Norway and Sweden proper are situated on the Scandinavian Peninsula,...

 started to rise at a considerable rate out of the ocean after the end of the last ice age. While this effect is still somewhat noticeable today, 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. There are overwhelming indications that the 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 Northern Sami
Northern Sami
Northern or North Sami is the most widely spoken of all Sami languages. The speaking area of Northern Sami covers the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland...

 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, only the Hjemmeluft locality is part of the official tour of the museum.

Most rocks around Alta are overgrown with a thick growth of moss
Mosses are small, soft plants that are typically 1–10 cm tall, though some species are much larger. They commonly grow close together in clumps or mats in damp or shady locations. They do not have flowers or seeds, and their simple leaves cover the thin wiry stems...

 and lichen
Lichens are composite organisms consisting of a symbiotic organism composed of a fungus with a photosynthetic partner , usually either a green alga or cyanobacterium...

; 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 documented using different techniques, most often the combination of quartz powder painted into the carvings which are then photographed and digitally treated.

Alta Museum

Alta Museum
Alta Museum
The Alta Museum is located in Alta in northern Norway within the Arctic Circle. Its northern Norway's most-visited summer museum, with more than 1,000 visitors each day...

 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 displays on Sami culture, the phenomenon of Aurora Borealis and the area's history of slate mining. The museum received the European Museum of the Year Award
European Museum of the Year Award
The European Museum of the Year Award , established in 1977, is presented each year by the European Museum Forum , under the Council of Europe...

 in 1993.

Imagery and interpretations

Possible explanations include use in shamanistic
Shamanism is an anthropological term referencing a range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world. To quote Eliade: "A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = technique of ecstasy." Shamanism encompasses the...

 rituals, totem
A totem is a stipulated ancestor of a group of people, such as a family, clan, group, lineage, or tribe.Totems support larger groups than the individual person. In kinship and descent, if the apical ancestor of a clan is nonhuman, it is called a totem...

istic symbols that denoted tribal unity or marked a tribe
A tribe, viewed historically or developmentally, consists of a social group existing before the development of, or outside of, states.Many anthropologists use the term tribal society to refer to societies organized largely on the basis of kinship, especially corporate descent groups .Some theorists...

's territory, a kind of historical record of important events, or even simple art
Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect....

istic pleasure
Pleasure describes the broad class of mental states that humans and other animals experience as positive, enjoyable, or worth seeking. It includes more specific mental states such as happiness, entertainment, enjoyment, ecstasy, and euphoria...

. 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
The reindeer , also known as the caribou in North America, is a deer from the Arctic and Subarctic, including both resident and migratory populations. While overall widespread and numerous, some of its subspecies are rare and one has already gone extinct.Reindeer vary considerably in color and size...

 are clearly predominant and are often shown in large herds that are alternatively nurtured and hunted. Depictions of reindeer behind fence
A fence is a freestanding structure designed to restrict or prevent movement across a boundary. It is generally distinguished from a wall by the lightness of its construction: a wall is usually restricted to such barriers made from solid brick or concrete, blocking vision as well as passage .Fences...

s indicate large cooperative hunting
Hunting is the practice of pursuing any living thing, usually wildlife, for food, recreation, or trade. In present-day use, the term refers to lawful hunting, as distinguished from poaching, which is the killing, trapping or capture of the hunted species contrary to applicable law...

 of these animals. Other animals that appear frequently are elk
The Elk is the large deer, also called Cervus canadensis or wapiti, of North America and eastern Asia.Elk may also refer to:Other antlered mammals:...

, various bird
Birds are feathered, winged, bipedal, endothermic , egg-laying, vertebrate animals. Around 10,000 living species and 188 families makes them the most speciose class of tetrapod vertebrates. They inhabit ecosystems across the globe, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Extant birds range in size from...

 species and different kinds of fish
Fish are a paraphyletic group of organisms that consist of all gill-bearing aquatic vertebrate animals that lack limbs with digits. Included in this definition are the living hagfish, lampreys, and cartilaginous and bony fish, as well as various extinct related groups...

. Pregnant
Pregnancy refers to the fertilization and development of one or more offspring, known as a fetus or embryo, in a woman's uterus. In a pregnancy, there can be multiple gestations, as in the case of twins or triplets...

 animals are often depicted with a young one visible inside of its mother.


Bears are mammals of the family Ursidae. Bears are classified as caniforms, or doglike carnivorans, with the pinnipeds being their closest living relatives. Although there are only eight living species of bear, they are widespread, appearing in a wide variety of habitats throughout the Northern...

s 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 worship
Worship is an act of religious devotion usually directed towards a deity. The word is derived from the Old English worthscipe, meaning worthiness or worth-ship — to give, at its simplest, worth to something, for example, Christian worship.Evelyn Underhill defines worship thus: "The absolute...

ped 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). Of special interest are the tracks coming out of bear dens: they are often 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
The afterlife is the belief that a part of, or essence of, or soul of an individual, which carries with it and confers personal identity, survives the death of the body of this world and this lifetime, by natural or supernatural means, in contrast to the belief in eternal...

 (or death
Death is the permanent termination of the biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include old age, predation, malnutrition, disease, and accidents or trauma resulting in terminal injury....

 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

Many 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 spear
A spear is a pole weapon consisting of a shaft, usually of wood, with a pointed head.The head may be simply the sharpened end of the shaft itself, as is the case with bamboo spears, or it may be made of a more durable material fastened to the shaft, such as flint, obsidian, iron, steel or...

s 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
The term Viking is customarily used to refer to the Norse explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th century.These Norsemen used their famed longships to...

In the days of sailing ships, a vessel would carry several ship's boats for various uses. One would be a longboat, an open boat to be rowed by eight or ten oarsmen, two per thwart...

s. 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 direction.

Scenes 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
Dance is an art form that generally refers to movement of the body, usually rhythmic and to music, used as a form of expression, social interaction or presented in a spiritual or performance setting....

, the preparation of food
Food is any substance consumed to provide nutritional support for the body. It is usually of plant or animal origin, and contains essential nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals...

 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
Human sexuality
Human sexuality is the awareness of gender differences, and the capacity to have erotic experiences and responses. Human sexuality can also be described as the way someone is sexually attracted to another person whether it is to opposite sexes , to the same sex , to either sexes , or not being...

 might be connected to fertility
Fertility is the natural capability of producing offsprings. As a measure, "fertility rate" is the number of children born per couple, person or population. Fertility differs from fecundity, which is defined as the potential for reproduction...

 rituals, scenes that show people cooking
Cooking is the process of preparing food by use of heat. Cooking techniques and ingredients vary widely across the world, reflecting unique environmental, economic, and cultural traditions. Cooks themselves also vary widely in skill and training...

 and preparing food might have been meant to ensure an abundance of food. Some scenes clearly show different societal
A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...

 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 priest
A priest is a person authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion, especially as a mediatory agent between humans and deities. They also have the authority or power to administer religious rites; in particular, rites of sacrifice to, and propitiation of, a deity or deities...

s or shamans or as rulers of a tribe. 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 marriage
Marriage is a social union or legal contract between people that creates kinship. It is an institution in which interpersonal relationships, usually intimate and sexual, are acknowledged in a variety of ways, depending on the culture or subculture in which it is found...

s or diplomatic
Diplomacy is the art and practice of conducting negotiations between representatives of groups or states...

 relations between tribes.

Geometric symbols

Among the most mysterious of the carvings are images of geometric
Geometry arose as the field of knowledge dealing with spatial relationships. Geometry was one of the two fields of pre-modern mathematics, the other being the study of numbers ....

A symbol is something which represents an idea, a physical entity or a process but is distinct from it. The purpose of a symbol is to communicate meaning. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for "STOP". On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols for...

s, 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 net
Fishing net
A fishing net or fishnet is a net that is used for fishing. Fishing nets are meshes usually formed by knotting a relatively thin thread. Modern nets are usually made of artificial polyamides like nylon, although nets of organic polyamides such as wool or silk thread were common until recently and...

s), most of these symbols remain unexplainable.

See also

  • Gobustan State Reserve
    Gobustan State Reserve
    Gobustan National Park officially Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape is a hill and mountain site occupying the southeast ending of the Big Caucasian Ridge, mainly in the basin of Jeyrankechmaz River, between the rivers Pirsagat and Sumgait...

  • Pre-historic art
    Pre-historic art
    In the history of art, prehistoric art is all art produced in preliterate, prehistorical cultures beginning somewhere in very late geological history, and generally continuing until that culture either develops writing or other methods of record-keeping, or it makes significant contact with another...

  • Petroglyph
    Petroglyphs are pictogram and logogram images created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, carving, and abrading. Outside North America, scholars often use terms such as "carving", "engraving", or other descriptions of the technique to refer to such images...

  • History of Norway
    History of Norway
    The history of human settlement in what is present day Norway goes back at least 11,000 years, to the late Paleolithic. Archaeological finds in the county of Møre og Romsdal have been dated to 9,200 BC and are probably the remains of settlers from Doggerland, an area now submerged in the North Sea,...

  • List of World Heritage Sites in Europe
  • Rock carvings in Central Norway
    Rock carvings in Central Norway
    Central Norway is a region in Norway, comprising the two Trøndelag-counties, Nord- and Sør-Trøndelag as well as parts of the Nordland and Møre og Romsdal counties....

  • Rock carvings at Tennes
    Rock carvings at Tennes
    Rock carvings at Tennes in Balsfjord, Troms county, Norway comprise figures of prehistoric rock art . The oldest figures have been dated to 4600 before the Current Era and the earliest to about 2600 BCE...

     (in Balsfjord
    Balsfjord is a municipality in Troms county, Norway. The administrative centre of the municipality is the village of Storsteinnes, while Nordkjosbotn at the head of the fjord is another village....

    , Troms
    or Romsa is a county in North Norway, bordering Finnmark to the northeast and Nordland in the southwest. To the south is Norrbotten Län in Sweden and further southeast is a shorter border with Lapland Province in Finland. To the west is the Norwegian Sea...

    , Norway
    Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...


External links

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