The Rock art of Alta (Helleristningene i Alta) are located in and around the municipality of Alta in the county of Finnmark in northern Norway. 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 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 list of World Heritage Sites on 3 December 1985. It is Norway's only prehistoric 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 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.
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 tools 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
, indicating contact between and maybe parallel development of cultures over a wide area of Europe
's extreme North.
Discovery and Restoration
The first carvings were discovered in autumn 1972 in the area of Jiepmaluokta (a Northern Sami 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.
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 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 in 1993.
Imagery and Interpretations
Possible explanations include use in shamanistic rituals, totemistic symbols that denoted tribal unity or marked a tribe's territory, a kind of historical record of important events, or even simple artistic pleasure.
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 indicate large cooperative hunting of these animals.
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).
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.
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, 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.
Among the most mysterious of the carvings are images 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.