Alta (Norway), Rock Art of
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Key Issues/Current Debates/Future Directions/Examples
Dating of the Rock Art
A key issue to the dating of the Alta rock art is the notion that the rock art is made in the shore zone and that the land uplift has changed the elevation of the rock art in relation to the contemporary shoreline (Helskog 1983, 1999). The petroglyphs in Alta are located between 26.5 masl and 8.5 masl. The rock art at the same elevation holds the same or similar style in figures and selection of motifs (Helskog 2014). An example of this is the bear hunting scenes and the reindeer corrals that are all located between 22 masl and 26 masl. Another factor is that no scene or composition crosses the 2 m elevation. Even scenes of bears and bear tracks that can be followed for more than 8 m follow a horizontal orientation and do extend vertically the 2 m vertical limit. This also corresponds with the sea spray where the shore zone directly above the tidal zone is vegetation-free (from lichen and moss), hence making the figures more visible. The functional reasoning for placing the rock art in the shore zone has been further strengthened by Helskog (1999) in his study of rock art in relation to arctic hunter-gatherer cosmology where the rock art is placed in a three-tier cosmology in the middle world between the sky (upper world) and the sea (lower world). These factors as well as the extraordinary situation in Alta where the selection of motifs and composition follows the same elevation make shoreline dating a good method for dating the Alta rock art.
Rock Art, Scenes, and Compositions
Between 21 masl and 17 masl, the rock art is dated to between c. 4000 BC and 3000 BC. The dominant motifs are still a large game with focus on elk and reindeer. In general, the motifs are similar to the earlier period. The seabirds are more frequent here, but there are still only a few figures. The large panels contain scenes and compositions such as bear hunting. The boats change in style, and the hull is more prominent, while the elk-head stem is still a feature. Some of the boats are involved in maritime hunting, such as sealing and possibly whaling small whales. The large narratives found in the earliest rock art are not that evident, and the large reindeer corrals and the numerous bear tracks are now missing from the record.
Between 13 masl and 10 masl, the rock art is dated to c. 2000 BC until c. 1000 BC. In this period, less rock art is made in Alta. The most notable change from the previous period is that the elk is missing from the record. The boats have a different style than the earlier boats from Alta. Boats of this period have been compared to the South Scandinavian Bronze Age boats and show similar traits (Gjerde 2017; Helskog 2012c; Kaul 2012). Another stylistic feature is the large “oversized” antlers of the reindeer. One of the scenes shows what is likely to be two human figures in a sword fight with swords and shields, similar to the “warrior scenes” in South Scandinavian Bronze Age rock art (e.g., Toreld 2015).
Natural Elements and Landscapes of Rock Art
The rock art is related to the natural elements of the rock so that the panels appear to be miniature landscapes. In some cases, the rock art may also signify the place of the activity, such as the bear dens, the halibut fishing from boat, and the shore zone represented by people in boats driving reindeer onto the shore where a hunter is waiting for them. These may be clues to the physical landscape, geographical references included in the rock art (Gjerde 2010). Some rock art panels may represent “maps” including information on activities, seasonality, and places in the landscape.
The Alta region holds numerous Stone Age settlements. Within the same area, there are also Stone Age quarries. Few attempts have been made to integrate the rock art into the rest of the prehistoric remains in the Alta Fjord region. The main future direction is to see how the rock art relates to the settlements and other cultural remains in the area. An ongoing research project is currently focusing on these topics.
- Alta Rock Art Archive. http://altarockart.no/
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