From the tyranny of the figures to the interrelationship between myths, rock art and their surfaces

From the book SEEING KNOWING: Understanding Rock Art with and without ethnography

Geoffrey Blundell
Christopher Chippendale
Benjamin Smith

Department of Cultural Sciences, Tromsø University Museum, Tromsø, Norway

Rock art was often deliberately made where communication with the spirits was believed to be good. It was therefore made in caves and shelters, on steep cliffs, high in the mountains and on the shore — a range of localities all considered transitional spaces between cosmic worlds (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1990; Tilley 1991; Whitley 1998; Helskog 1999). This emphasises that rock art is often just one part of a broader ritual landscape. This chapter focuses on the physical rock art panel, the surface with art, and bow this art engages with the rock art figures. On some surfaces, specific topographic features enhanced the form of the figures. Figures directly associated with cracks and fissures appear to be climbing out from inside/under the surface, or a serpent depicted in a basin is interpreted as a serpent within water, or the tracks of the bear entering a basin are interpreted as the bear going underwater, passing through to the underworld (Helskog 1999). To secure a prosperous field season at Besov Nos on the east coast of Lake Onega in Karelia, some Russian archaeologists always start fieldwork by sacrificing a shot or two of vodka into the mouth — a fissure — of the large rock engrav­ing called ‘the demon’. Fieldwork is always good.

Topographic features might be one reason for selecting a particular surface; orientation to the sun, dark hidden places, colours and the presence of water are others. It is to be expected that around the world the reasons will be numerous, the locations different — each particular to a specific culture and to that peo­ple’s rituals and understandings of their life in the known universe. However, in many areas it is clear that surfaces were selected with great care, for specific reasons, all connected with the symbolism of the rock art. These points are demonstrated for a series of rock art panels made by prehistoric hunter-fisher-gatherers in Alta, Arctic Norway (Figure 10.1).

Figure 10.1. Map of northernmost Europe showing the location of Alta and Zalavruga (at the river Vyg)

The Tyranny

During the last few years, my understanding of rock art has changed. The process began when I saw com­positions in which bears were the central ‘actors’ (Figure 10.2). These seemed to be illustrations in which the animals moved through space and time. This was a story in which I could recognise some key elements without needing to know the full meaning (Helskog 1999). I realised that the rock surface itself played a much larger part in the composition than I had previously thought. I then understood that my recorded rock art information was incomplete; I lacked detailed knowledge of the surfaces. The thou­sand photographs taken as part of my documentation have not relieved my uneasiness or made me feel more comfortable. In 19971 asked an artist to draw one of the large panels (Figures 10.2,10.3). The artist found that the changes in perspective that occurred in dif­ferent parts of the panel made it impossible to make a satisfactory single rendering of the panel, and no (three-dimensional) drawing was made.

Figure 10.2 Bergbukten I. Photograph of part of the panel, taken from a high ladder;
a perspective that was probably never seen in prehistoric times. Water has collected in small pools after a rainstorm.
Tracks lead up to but do not descend into the largest of these pools (bottom right comer).
Clearly, this pool of water formed a part of the story of the panel.
The figures are now painted red so as to be more visible to visitors.

In 1999 I challenged another artist, illustrator and technical drawer to work on the same panel. Part of the result is seen in Figure 10.4. At around the same time I bought a book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Edwards 1979), with the Norwegian title To Draw is to See (Å Tegne er å Se), because nobody seemed able to give me what I wanted. Reading and practicing drawing made me realise how bound I was to the long-established traditions of seeing and recording, and why I had gone wrong in my redraw­ing of the rock art. I had focused on the figures them­selves as so many before me had done (such as Gjessing 1936; Simonsen 1958; Hallstrom 1960; Maimer 1981). In good Scandinavian tradition, I had traced all of the figures onto plastic sheets, joined them together and then reproduced all within a single redrawing, but without really seeing the surrounding rock or the surfaces between the images. I knew that aspects of the surfaces had to be recorded, but I really did not know which features to record. Traditionally, some fissures and cracks are drawn, especially if they run through engravings, but they are not included in the discussion of meaning. Recently Coles (2000), in his re-analysis of the so-called Dansarm (‘the dancer*) rock engraving panel in southern Sweden, recognised that fissures and cracks subdivide larger panels into smaller units. The point applies to Norway as well. In 2004, my own cooperation with the artist bore fruit — another copy, and with better technical drawing control (Helskog & Hogtun 2004). Also, from 2002 I became involved with a large Scandinavian project Rock Art of Northern Europe — and I introduced high-level technology and video scanning to my recording practices. These methods give an accurate three-dimensional recording of the surface topogra­phy, emphasising the spatial interrelationship between the engravings and the surface on which they are located (Helskog 2003). The method is still expensive, but will no doubt become a standard method of doc­umentation in the future.

Figure 10.3 The main part of Bergbukten I. This redrawing shows a common type of rock art documentation in which only the engraved figures are represented.
It Is devoid of ’disturbing’ topographic features and has flattened out an otherwise undulating sur­face.
Not much can be gained from It concerning any meanings that may be derived from the relationships between the figures and the rock surface.

Figure 10.4 Bergbukten I. A perspective drawing which emphasises the relationships between the figures and the rock surface.
The view is from the direction of the shoreline. This is a more ’correct’ representation than the redrawing In Figure 10.3.
(Drawing by Ernst Hagtun, Tromso Museum).

In retrospect, one of the rewarding aspects of working with rock art is the fact that the research is rarely destructive, unlike the practice of excavation: what goes unrecorded can be recorded later. For that I am grateful, and have been many times.

The recognition of ‘panels’ on rock art surfaces is as old as the discovery of rock art. At times the physical layout of the compositions is clearly distinguished within panels (Hallstrom 1960), or panels can be regarded as metaphoric pages a few meters apart or sep­arated by cracks (Tilley 1991). In some cases the panels are ‘natural’, such as the slabs found in the Kivik grave, or those found under the Bronze Age grave mound of Hogholmen (Goldhahn 1999), or among the ledges at New Zalavruga (Sawatejev 1970). Panels have always been recognised, yet much focus has been on individual figures (e.g. Maimer 1981) — which figures are located adjacent to which others and, although less so, on the relationship between the figures and the rock surface. The focus on the figure might partly be explained by the constraints placed by the strong preoccupation with chronology, and therefore with the need to ‘prove’ which figures are contemporaneous and which are not to record all cracks and fissures in a panel involves subjective choices and afterwards there is the problem of distinguishing cracks and fissures from the rock an images in the photographs and the repro copies of the plastic sheets. And what about the different colours, the elevations, the depressions, the seeping water, the changing gradients — all of which can complicate and make tracings unintelligible. The inability to draw is part of the reason why documentation by drawing/tracing has been primarily two-dimensional, supplemented by a vast array of photographs. Photographs, snapped at a hundredth of a second, copy an image onto a flat sur­face and do not necessarily enhance one’s observation of a surface the way drawing docs. In addition, how does one record the surrounding/adjacent surfaces, sounds, smells, and the ambience of a place? Archaeologists are selective when recording data; cap­turing all is not possible. In the case of rock engravings, the easiest, least cumbersome choice is to focus on the figures. Today I find that good documentation is demanding and time consuming.

Even in those cases where figures and surface fea­tures are recorded by nibbling, interpretations do not include comment on the structure of the surface any more frequently than where the figures are traced and when fissures and cracks are recorded (e. g. Poikalaincn & Emits 1998). If the rock surfaces — the landscapes in which the rock art story is told (Helskog 2004) — are meaning-rich, then we also have to make sure that when curators ‘mend’ rock surfaces to preserve rock art they do not inadvertently destroy part of that landscape.

Our traditional strong focus on the figures con­strains what we see, record and interpret: this is what I mean by the tyranny of the figures in the chapter title.

Choosing the surface

Myths and folklore are an important source of infor­mation on any culture: some offer an explanation as to why things are as they are — events and natural phe­nomena, sickness, good or bad hunts — and they serve to reinforce social order, the organisation of society and relationship with the supernatural. The origin of stories can only be speculated upon. Some ‘travel’ between populations and others appear to be indige­nous; some were perhaps first narrated by a shaman following an experience in an altered state of con­sciousness (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1988). Judging from the diversity of shapes and the content of global rock an, the cultural dimension in the choice of what is depicted was a dominating factor. In Scandinavia, it can be demonstrated how form and content changed through time, from prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies (Hagen 1973) or, as in Alta, within hunting-fishing-gathering societies (Helskog 1988,1989). The explanations for visualis­ing stories and choosing form and content are bound to be multiple, and the stories, storytellers and experi­ences will be culturally bound. Furthermore, connect­ing the rock art to the vast range of stories/narratives known from ethnographic sources, or to the many recorded beliefs and rituals, is difficult. But the repe­tition of figures depicted in rock art indicates that the stories in Alta focused on a relatively small number of figures and outdoor activities: there is a focus on the ’few’ rather than on the massive range of activities that might have been depicted. Even given a possible ’free­dom’ of choice, the artist chose within tight parame­ters. So why the selectivity? It is this choice we find on the rock surfaces.

Compositions imply that the artist had a story to tell, which again means that the surface chosen had to ’fit’ the story, or that the story needed to be appropri­ate to the surface. Any artist, past or present, was/is bound by this simple relationship. A story may or may not have been created because of the form of the sur­face, but we can see that some rock engravings (and therefore their stories) were positioned because of the features on or in the surfaces. Rock surfaces must have been, at least at times, instrumental in the choices made. At a particular ritual area some surfaces might have been more conducive to conveying particular nar­ratives and messages than others. Alternatively, as Pat Vinnicombe noted while we were walking through the Drakensberg before the symposium for David Lewis- Williams, “in a living nature the story might have been in the surface already, and the figures only needed to be added” (Patricia Vinnicombe pers. comm. 2000).

When a surface was engraved, the panel — the sur­face and figures — might become bound to a particular story and ritual. Yet, we know that, at some surfaces, figures are added at later points in time. Panels can expand. The panels discussed in this chapter are all dated to approximately the late 7th and early 6th mil­lennia BP. If engravings added to these panels were intentionally related to those made earlier, then there was an accumulative effect in which the story was con­tinued in some form. If not, then the new composi­tion represents only a later chronological instant in the life of the panel and the story at that point was probably different from earlier stories told on the same panel. Indeed, stories might have changed with changing contexts. If place was a meaning-giving element, environmental changes might have caused changes in the ritual associations between the panel and its landscape. In Arctic Scandinavia in particular, where new land emerged from the sea with shore dis­placement and climatic changes throughout the Holocene, old associations might have been broken.

Where a landscape remained unchanged, rock art panels would have been more prone to have been engraved in variable manners over a long period of time. For panels where the landscape changed, the rock art would more likely have been made over a shorter period of time and will therefore appear fairly uniform and homogeneous. Examples of both alternatives can be found among the panels at Lake Onega, eastern Karelia, Russia. It is well documented that the panels are all located adjacent to water. There are several cases along rivers and lakes where engravings still arc, or until recently were, overflowed by water (Sawatejev 1970, 1984; Ramqvist ctal 1985; Shumkin 1990; Tilley 1991: 56). Panels appear to have touched water (Bertdsson 1987; Hesjedal et al. 1996; Helskog 1999). In Alta, there is a chronological difference between panels at dif­ferent heights above sea level: those lower down are younger than those higher up. New panels continued to hug the shoreline as the land rose. This does not nec­essarily mean that those panels at a higher altitude were discarded, but new engravings seldom appear to have been added to the older surfaces. This is particularly evi­dent in the boat figures (Helskog 1985,1988). Many of the panels at Alta thus do not appear to be extensively chronologically mixed, although there is no method that can guarantee a ‘chronological homogeneity’.

The figures at the panel of Storsteinen were made on the top surface (20.4 m above sea level) of a four- meter high, flat-topped boulder on the steep slope of a glacial frontal deposit. They contain a mixture of manners of depiction, covering a longer time span than at any other panel. The reason for dies is that in front of this boulder there are no lower rock surfaces where new figures could be made as the waterline receded — this boulder is unique in this respect in Alta. Storsteinen appears to have been used and engraved for 1500- 2000 years, as long as the boulder was connected to the shoreline. A radiocarbon date from deposits cover­ing figures 20 m above sea level on the rock surface indicates that a part of the panel was covered by peat when surfaces at 8.5 m-11 m above sea level were engraved. The obvious point here is that a panel which represents a relatively short period of time will provide clearer rock art units and will be easier to tie to other aspects of the prehistoric record than one with figures covering a long period of rime. The bigger question is: are changes in rock art content and manner of depic­tion over time indicative of changing meanings?

In contrast to the rock engravings, the environ­ment associated with the rock paintings changed less. The painted figures are found on vertical surfaces in dark caves and shelters. Inside the caves, all along the Norwegian coast, the changes were minimal, while the outside environment changed with the shore dis­placement and climatic changes. In caves and shelters, paintings of human figures dominate numerically (Bjerck 1995); in many caves only images of humans are painted. To the east, in Finland, no engravings have yet been found and the paintings, all on open cliffs above water (Kivikäs 1995), are more diverse than those in the caves and shelters of Norway.

Part of the explanation for the differences between paintings and engravings is to be found in the rituals associated with the location of the panels, and possibly with the surfaces themselves. The painted figures in caves (inside) and shelters (inside-outside) are all on vertical surfaces, while the engraved figures are always on the outside, on a variety of surfaces but seldom on a totally vertical surface. The engravings, with the absolute largest number of classes and types of figures, are embedded into the rock in the open, and were, judging from variety, sheer numbers and diversity of surfaces, associated with a larger diversity of rituals and stories than the paintings.

The surfaces on which modern painters normally work are flat with a vertical or horizontal dimension, while the makers of rock engravings worked on sur­faces of which no two are identical. These surfaces vary in size, topography, gradient and orientation. Added to this, the light would have been constantly changing. A large surface has room for more figures than small surfaces. Uneven and undulating surfaces with cracks or fissures can be utilised differently to flat, even and unbroken surfaces. Steep surfaces can be used to convey different messages to horizontal surfaces, and so on. But, we have also to keep in mind that different surfaces could be used in a similar way and could carry similar meanings.

Modern painters have learnt to convey a sense of depth of field by using shading, foreshortening, per­spective, and so on. The rock artists at Alta and Zalavruga, and those from all parts of northern Europe, do not use these techniques in their images and compositions. Yet the engravings themselves are three-dimensional. Also, the integration of features in the rock surfaces provides a similar sense of depth and of three-dimensionality as when one is looking at places in a landscape. The integration of surface features might indeed make the total representation a three-dimensional one. Further dimensions were also represented, for example the worlds under the rock and in the sky, as I will argue below. So, in the minds of the original viewers, the meanings associated with the figures and the compositions probably included multiple dimensions.

Evidence to show that there are structural similar­ities in the organisation of figures and compositions can be found in the larger, older panels in Alta, par­ticularly those located on slanting surfaces (Helskog 1999, 2004). These compositions, with the bear as the central motif, used different parts of the rock sur­face to show the bear moving though a cosmological landscape divided into an upper, middle and lower world (Helskog 1999). Four compositions have been found with variations on a process in which the bear moves through time and space on the rock surfaces: the compositions capture an entire seasonal cycle. One interesting aspect is the fact that, on three of these four surfaces, the height is as much as 250 cm from the top to the bottom of the composition. The contact with the upper world, the world of the major spirits, is at the top of the panel; the entrance to the lower world, the world of the dead, is at the bottom; and in between one finds the middle world, the world of the living. The focus of the scenes, if judged in terms of size and numbers of figures, is on the middle world where humans, animals, insects and plants live. Not only does the bear seem to wander between these three cosmic worlds, but, in its wanderings, it moves through the entire annual cycle. It is as if the place of the bear in the cosmos represented the changes between the seasons — a belief that we know was held among the Nenets (Ovsyannikov & Terebikhin 1994) and the Sami in recent historic time (Nordlander-Unsgaard 1987).

There may have been some variation in where the other worlds were believed to be located, or at least in where the entrances between them were found. The ethnographic records in the European north and Siberia indicate that the other worlds were seen as being located in cardinal directions. To the east, where the sun rises, or to the south where it is warm, is the entrance to the upper world; the entrance to the lower world is in the west, where the sun sets, or to the north, where it is cold and dark. There is some variation in beliefs between different groups, some­thing not unexpected because the locations are con­nected with moving natural features and phenomena. For example, the sun constantly changes its altitude above the horizon and it is totally present then absent for a period of two months in summer and winter respectively. Simultaneously, there are significant changes in the environment. The associated rituals and the location of the entrance to the different worlds may have changed in a living environment.

Inverted figures in the rock art of Alta may be indicative of the idea that the lower world (world of the dead) was inverted in relation to the (middle) world of the humans (Holmberg 1927: 72-73), but that life in the other worlds was otherwise somewhat similar to that in the world where people lived (Anisimov 1963a; Holmberg 1927: 484, 1987: 23; Ovsyannikov & Terebikhin 1994: 54).

The question to be addressed in the remainder of this chapter is whether the position of figures other than the bear can also yield information about prehis­toric concepts of the universe. In order to answer this question, I shall focus on the most frequently depicted animal associated with human figures: the European elk (American moose). Elk are strongly represented in the engravings: their heads are placed on the prow of boats and sometimes there is a tail in the stern as if elk and boats were interchangeable, or elk were boats and boats were elk. In other compositions the heads of elk are placed on top of poles, while elk are sometimes depicted in compositions that appear to represent rit­uals involving human figures. In recent arctic ethnog­raphy, mythological stories about the position and role of the elk are well known in Siberia, but are almost absent in northern Scandinavia. ’There are a few myths about the cosmic elk (Sarvas) and cosmic elk hunts among the Sami (Lundmark 1982: 93-104), but when compared with the frequent stories of the bear, elk stories have a much smaller role. Judging by the rock art of northern Scandinavia, it seems that the elk once had an equally strong if not stronger position than the bear, but in contrast to the bear did not main­tain its position into the recent past.

Part of the reason why elk gained a special mean­ing within the system of belief and practice may be related to the nature of the elk itself, its size and behaviour, and the habitat in which it lives. The elk is the largest land animal in the north. Elk live in wood­land and associated open country, including moun­tains. In particular, they favour marshlands, river valleys and lakes in summer and drier ground in winter. In north-cast Europe they can migrate up to 150 km between feeding grounds in summer, although some are known to be non-migratory (MacDonald & Barrett 1993). In the summer their diet comprises mainly large herbs and leaves, including aquatic plants for which they wade, swim and even dive. Of the ter­restrial animals in the north, the elk is the one most oriented towards a watery habitat.

The Panels

With the exception of one panel from Zalavruga, northern Karelia, Russia, all the examples I discuss are from Alta. In Alta no two panels are identical. The angles of the rock surfaces vary from approximately 45* to horizontal, and the panels vary in size from 70 m2 to less than 1 m2, from polished to eroded, and from red to grey. Other variations include large panels with a large number and variety of figures, to small panels with few figures and little variation. The group of panels that I examine here are all from the earliest phase.

Figure 10.5 Berghelm I. This redrawing emphasises a number of figures and cracks
that have been added to a standard redrawing such as that seen in Figure 10.3.
As a result, the perspective is faulty. Note the concentration of elk in the lower section.

The first panel, Berghelm I (Figures 10.5 Sc 10.6), Alta (6200 BP-5600 BP), was first recorded in 1975. The lowest part was well preserved under peat while the upper two-thirds was strongly eroded. We worked all hours of the day and night to exploit the shifting light of the sun, but did not succeed in recording many engravings on the upper part. In the summer of 1999 I re-examined the upper section — looking with different eyes, and using a large black plastic sheet to manipulate light and shadows — eager to dis­cover what figures were actually there. The result was astonishing, and the distribution of the figures rein­forced the impression that entire panels can represent a landscape with stories. The eroded rock surface is, however, undoubtedly still hiding engraved lines to be discovered, but we have recorded most of what there is without stripping additional peat.

Figure 10.6 Bergheim I. Photograph showing the northern section of the surface, looking north-north-west.

The surface of the panel is even, with striation marks from the last glaciation at 90* to the direction of the slope. The top section of the panel is relatively horizontal before sloping (20*-30‘) downwards to another relatively horizontal surface which steepens into a 45* slope. The rounded ‘horizontal’ top, the slope and the relatively horizontal surface are all strongly eroded and the engravings are difficult to see, while on the lowest slope the engravings are well pre­served, having once been protected by a cover of peat that the upper surfaces lacked.

The animal figures in the top section are strongly eroded. The group of five animals to the right are other elk or reindeer. The animals to the left all appear to be reindeer. In the slope immediately below, all are reindeer, with one exception. To the left there are two vertically split ‘ovals’. There is what appears to be some form of enclosure marked by long, wide lines similar to those on two other contemporaneous panels. Snow shoes, or prints thereof, are depicted in a semicircle moving from the right to the left, in a way similar to the foot series interpreted as those of a god on south Scandinavian engravings (Almgren 1927: 212-218; Almgren 1962). On the lower right there is a human figure standing on similar snow shoes. The lowest set of snow shoes extends down onto the relatively hori­zontal middle section of the panel. To the left of the large halibut hooked on a line there are four distinct female elk and a line which continues down to what appears to be an elk or a reindeer on top of the lowest section of the panel. Beneath the naked foot and two human figures holding elk headed poles, the surface changes into a slope of approximately 45°. With the exception of two reindeer on the upper left, the ter­restrial animals are mainly female elk. In the central right there are two elk, which appear to be defending their offspring from attacking dogs or wolves. Furthermore, there are two more scenes with human figures holding elk-headed poles, a copulation scene, three fish, two boats and a few geometric patterns and, lowest of all, a pair of bear paws under the stomach of a large elk. Both the similarities and the differences between the figures are large and signal meanings yet to be discovered and explored. The point to be noted here is that the elk are positioned on the lowest part of the panel, while reindeer are not found lower than the upper part of the lowest slope.

This general positioning is repeated at other slanting panels from the same time period. At Ole Pedersen I there is a line of oblong-bodied figures (the uppermost, horizontal figure looks like a humpback whale owing to the two downward-extending flipper-like lines (Helskog 1999: figure 7]) and I suggest that they do depict whales. High on the surface there are a bear and an elk, while all the reindeer are located on the central part of the panel and the elk are mostly on the lower part, together with bears and a whale, and the hips to feet of a large human figure. On the adjacent panel to the north there are bears at the top, reindeer in the cen­tre, and elk at the bottom. Also, the lowest figure is an upside-down elk-headed boat (Helskog 1988: 50).

At Bergbukten IV B (Figures 10.7,10.8), on a 45* slope, only reindeer are depicted in the upper section. In the central section reindeer also dominate and there are human figures, standing in boats as well as on land, who are aiming at the animals with bows and arrows. Towards the bottom of the panel the number of rein­deer is reduced and the number of elk increase. The boats with elk heads in the prow are in the middle, together with bear and halibut. All the elk are to the right in the panel and the majority are in the lowest part. One of the elk appears to be hunted by a human figure with an axe-like weapon; another appears to be caught in a foot trap. At the bottom of the panel there is a male elk facing human figures holding elk-headed poles, spears and a short curved implement, as if in the performance of a ritual, cither real or in a narrative To the right of the panel there is a break in the slope of the surface — a change in direction and another composition of an elk ritual (with a male elk). To the right there is a herd of female elk with two reindeer in the middle. The point here is that the elk are again positioned in the lower part of the panel.

At the panel at Kåfjord (Helskog 1999: figure 3), connected with a composition of bears, one of the two figures at the top is an inverted elk. To the centre there are mainly reindeer and possibly two to three elk inside a reindeer corral. At the lower section, beneath the horizontal tracks of the bear, to the right of the basin into which the downwards extending footprints lead, there is a concentration of elk although elk are not dominant among the animals depicted in the lower section of the panel.

The panel at Ole Pedersen IX has a small, almost horizontal top surface, from which it slopes down in four different directions (Helskog 1988: 54-55). The altitudinal difference between top and bottom is approximately 20 cm. Most figures are oriented along the slopes There are mainly elk, three bears, a rein­deer, a fox, two hares, and human figures with bows and arrows and spears (one with a drum, some in a procession, two with elk-headed poles, four holding on to an oval and each other), a face, and a long line ending in a circle with a central point. It is a compact panel, and the story narrated and the landscape involved appear different from those in the two previ­ously described panels. The elk dominate. The elk- headed poles are a central focus at the highest section, in contrast to their location at the lower part of the other panels. The vertical structures that point towards the vertical division of the universe are absent; instead, the figures are interwoven in an entirely different way, and boats and fish are not included. There is also no lack of surrounding rock surfaces where engravings could have been made, but were not.

I note also that, at the large, horizontal, undulating to sloping panel Bergbuktcn I, with a reindeer corral, the lower animals closest to the shoreline are all elk (Figure 10.2).

Figure 10.7 Bergbukten IV 8. A redrawing emphasising engraved figures and cracks.
In this case most of the surface is relatively flat, with a gradient of approximately 45° ­-
The northern and southern sections are oriented in slightly different directions.
Note the concentration of elk in the lower section.

Figure 10.8 Bergbukten IV B. The northern part of the panel, looking south.

In contrast to Alta, the engravings at Zalavruga in northern Karelia, Russia, are all on relatively flat hori­zontal surfaces on an old river bank. The distinction between panels on horizontal and sloping surfaces is not as pronounced as at Alta. Some of the panels are separated by pools of rainwater and small ledges. Inside the pools no engravings are found. Bur, clearly, the surfaces are chosen because they fit the story or the story can be fitted to the surface. At Staraja (Old) Zalavruga (Zalavruga I [Sawatejev 1970: figure 14]) the surface is smooth and few other surfaces could have fitted a composition of this size and form, espe­cially if the form of the surface was significant. The location was on a small north promontory on the shore landscape, unlike that of any other section (Sawatejev 1970: figure 16). Three large elk and some boats are depicted towards the top of the west slope, and a ‘wedge’ of reindeer cuts off the outermost part of the promontory (Figure 10.9). The water would have bounded the western, northern and eastern surfaces. There are no engravings immediately to the south, while to the north1 northeast, downslope, there are smaller-sized figures such as human figures on skis, elk, boats and a few beluga (white whales). The large figures, considered by some researchers to be the oldest (Stoljar 1977), include large elk, elk-headed prow boats, all female. These large figures occur behind, almost within, the wedge formation of reindeer. They all move from the left (north) to the right — along the shoreline. Fifty metres further to the south-southeast, at the site New Zalavruga, is the well-known hunting scene in which three skiers hunt three elk (Sawatejev 1984) and in which the ski tracks and the tracks from the elk move downhill in accordance with the topography of the rock surface. As stated earlier, the posi­tioning of the elk requires a thorough examination in all panels before any specific conclusions can be drawn for these Karelian sites, but, as at Alta, it is evident that the ancient Karelian population also used elk and the surface as a part of the story being told.

Understanding the Elk

On a sloping rock surface, when illustrating a story in which the sky, earth, water and below (underworld) played a part, one would expect the sky to be posi­tioned uppermost, below to be lowermost, and the world in which people live to be depicted in the mid­dle. In the Alta panels, this seems to be the case. Yet, some of the figures — birds, reindeer, boats and fish — also signal different environments, but this may also be related to the different worlds. The spatial rela­tionships between the figures not only reflect the spa­tial relationships in the physical world but also their interwoven associations to the different worlds as the people understood them: to a universe alive with souls, spirits and other non-human beings that moved about doing what supernatural beings do. In essence, we should not expect that figures will be located according to our understanding of nature but, rather, according to a nature that was understood as the place where worlds met and where people, animals and supernatural beings acted and interacted.

Figure 10.9 Old Zalavruga, at the river Vyg, Karelia, Russia (Sawatejev 1970: figure 14).
The ‘plow-shaped’ concentration of elk and reindeer acts as a ’boundary between the panel and the rock surface to the south.
In other directions, the panel is bounded by a river.

It is perhaps such an understanding that the posi­tioning of the engravings reflects. A pattern emerges where the majority of elk on the oldest panels at Alta appear to be located towards the lower section of slant­ing panels, reindeer in the central and upper sections, and the bear in all sections. I do not claim that any class of animal is excluded from any section but instead that there appears to be a pattern of emphasis. It must be noted that, on the more horizontal surfaces, similar pat­terns have not yet emerged. This is a distribution that needs to be examined more closely at other panels and at other sites. The positioning of the animals at Zalavruga, where the majority of the surfaces are relatively horizontal, does not show a similar spatial relationship. On the other hand, there is no doubt that all the sur­faces were used to create compositions, and it is there­fore obvious that a focus on the panel can give different and more information than a focus on individual figures.

Prehistoric sculptures shaped like the head of elk and bear are found all over northernmost Europe (Carpclan 1977). The largest elk head found, in northern Finland, is made of pine (Era-Esko 1958) and dates to the late 8th millennium BP. Yet in the many middens in northern Norway dating to the Stone Age, elk bones are missing, as are those of bear. This suggests that both animals were given some sort of preferential burial, as witnessed by the bear graves from the early Middle Ages, or thrown into a river/water, as among the Voguls (Kannisto et al. 1958). Alternatively, these animals may never have been hunted or eaten, but this is contrary to the hunt­ing scenes in the rock art. In the forested areas of northern Sweden, elk bones become dominant in the archaeological record, while their continued promi­nent position in the rock art of that area indicates their continued ritual significance. It appears that there were regional cultural differences in ritual behaviour associated with elk.

Okladnikov and Martynov (1972, cited in Jacobson 1993: 92-93), claimed that the sun cult and solar rituals were important in Neolithic Siberia and that the boats frequently overlaying or underlying the elk refer to the passage after death from one world to another. The predominance of female elk points to the animal as a source of life. However, the relation­ship of the elk with the major rivers suggests that, if the rivers were considered by Neolithic cultures to be the paths that souls took to the netherworld, the world of the dead, then elk were as closely associated with death as with life (Jacobson 1993: 92-97). Assuming that the elk-boat relationship refers to the passage after death, the elk must also have been invoked in funerary rituals.

The elk is an animal which thrives in water, in river valleys and marshes, during the summer, and in forests during the winter. More than any other terrestrial animal, it connects with water and this behavioural characteristic might have become a metaphor for a spirit animal that mediated land and water — therefore boats with elk-headed prows. The elk heads on boat prows do not have antlers and therefore may be female. Some have asserted that elk without antlers in herds represent a winter phenomenon (Ramqvist et al. 1985), while others (Hagen 1976; Mikkelsen 1986; Tilley 1991) have focused more on them as an indicator of femininity, a point of view which is also common among Russian scholars (Jacobson 1993). The elk has been associated ethnographically with totemism, death and resurrection (Tilley 1991); it was polysomic, as has been shown for rock art symbols elsewhere (Lewis-Williams 1998).

Our knowledge of the elk in prehistory is based on artifacts, osteological remains and engravings on arte­facts and rock surfaces, while our understanding of the meanings of the elk is based solely on the ethnographic record. The problems in applying analogies need hardly be repeated (e.g. Wylie 1985; Lewis-Williams 1991,1995). Ethnographic examples associated with the elk in a north European and Siberian context may, however, provide a part of the framework for interpreting the rock art when complex patterns in the ethnography fit closely with complex patterns in the rock art. In the cosmology of the Siberian populations, the elk represents one of the most important spirits, while in Sami folklore information about the elk is minimal; there seems to be no continuity within northern Scandinavia. The elk, however, especially the female animal, was once an important animal in the world of beliefs of the populations of northern Scandinavia, as has been claimed for northern Russia, and across the taiga and tundra of Siberia (Jacobson 1993: 2). According to Anisimov (1963a: 110), the elk was also an ancient totem among the Evenk.

According to Jacobson (1993: 242), the role of the elk among the Evenk and the Ket of western Siberia has Bronze Age roots, and these peoples’ myths are thus especially relevant as an analog)’. In the ethnographic record there is a heavenly elk, a mother elk, a cosmic elk, a gigantic female elk, associated with hunting and regeneration (Anisimov 1963b: 161- 162; Jacobson 1993: 242). The elk seems to be con­nected to all cosmic worlds. It was a creator linked with the creation of the mountain and rivers in the middle world (Anisimov 1963b: 166). Among the Evenk, the bear and the elk were the most powerful animals, and the bear was the master of all animals:

In the upper world of the universe the bear running pursues the elk khargi, giving rise to the succes­sion of day and night in the land of people. In the nether world the mythical elk cow khargi lies under the roots of the cosmic world tree, giving birth to animals and people for the middle world, while the spirit master (a bear) of the nether world takes the souls of the dead back to himself, to the nether world. In the middle world of the universe, the place of the living people, the spirit lukuchen (an elk) fights with other spirits of the tribal pantheon (Anisimov 1963b: 198).

The linking of the cosmological image of the elk (deer) with the image of the mammoth, functionally analogous, and in turn, that of the mammoth with the views on the nether world, is characteristic of the mythology of most of the nationalities of northern Asia, and truly, it may be considered a common Siberian phenomenon (Anisimov 1963b: 167).

Also, among the spirit rulers of the netherworld the image of the elk-deer was used as the guard for the river of the mythical shaman clan. This elk-deer had the antlers of an elk and the tail of a fish and con­nects with both water and land.

The Voguls (Kannisto etal. 1958:89), west of the northern Ural Mountains, saw the star constellation known today as the Big Bear as a male elk. The Evenk saw the same elk as female. In general, the elk is asso­ciated with the passage of seasons (Anisimov 1963b: 163), and especially with the regeneration of nature. For example, among the Soswa Voguls, (Kannisto et al. 1958: 93, 391-392), when the ice breaks and starts to move in a village, the men cook and consume an elk head while the women also cook and eat elk meat. Small girls take part, as on other occasions, in the consumption of the elk head. The meal is con­sumed at the river bank. When the ice starts to move, the dish with sacrificial meat is placed on the shore and the men shoot their guns, bow their heads and utter an incantation to secure future yields of food from the river. After the incantation the meat is thrown onto the river ice. There was also the tradition in different areas that elk bones had to be thrown into water. If they were thrown onto the ground, the elk would not let hunters come close.

Among the Unter Kunda Voguls, who sacrificed small gifts, the weak elk bones were given to the dogs while the hard, strong bones were boiled, split to extract the marrow, and then sunk into water (Kannisto et al. 1958: 93, 391-392). The Pclymka were not required to throw elk bones into water, as was their custom with the bones of the bear, but the people were careful not to spill elk blood or meat on the floor of the house, while the blood and meat of the bear do not appear to have been as important. Elk meat could not be eaten out of an unclean dish from which red fish had been eaten. If, however, the dish was properly cleaned, it was possible to eat meat from such a dish and it was even possible to cook elk meat and dried fish together (Kannisto etal. 1958: 392).

Among the many examples of the cosmic and rit­ual significance of the elk I have found no mention of an association between boats and elk. The sole refer­ence to boats in rituals comes from Holmberg (1927: 32-33), who mentions that the Ugrians and the Karelian Finns had a custom of burying their dead in a boat or a punt, and it is argued that this is connected both with an old belief regarding the journey across water to the world of the dead, and with the need for a boat in the world of the dead. Also, the Vikings buried their dead in boats to ensure that they would journey to the realm of death. In essence, there is a plausible connection between death and transporta­tion of the dead in boats. While one might not want to draw the conclusion that all boats in the rock art are similarly connected, some might be.

It is possible that the elk beliefs in the ethnographic records represent the last vestiges of a belief system that had its roots far back in prehistory. I therefore conclude by considering how the rock engravings relate to the ethnographic traditions. These give the elk several major roles. The elk is associated with all dimensions of the universe but, of all terrestrial ani­mals, they are the ones most clearly associated with the underworld and water. There is a notable corres­pondence when comparing this ethnographic trend with the positioning of the elk as the dominant animal on the lower section of some of the slanting rock art panels. Both the ethnography and the art position the elk in relation to the underworld. It can therefore be argued that there is at least some correspondence between the archaeological and ethnographic records.

This discussion of the ‘interplay’ between archaeo­logical evidence, interpretation and ethnography cer­tainly proves the long antiquity of elk as an important symbol in beliefs and rituals. Of this there can be no doubt. Nor should there be doubt about continuity within these northern regions. On the other hand, pointing out the existence of prehistoric representa­tions and ethnographic lore within the same or adja­cent geographic regions is not the same as saying that prehistoric beliefs were identical to those recorded ethnographically. The research of Russian scholars (Anisimov 1963a, 1963b; Okladnikov & Martynov 1972) and of others (Jacobson 1993) points to changes both in meaning and in associated social structures. Yet, I argue, we may still use some ethno­graphic material in our interpretive model.


From the above discussion I extract a few general points which, obviously, stem from my experience from northernmost Europe. I give these to contribute to the experiences of others, in other places, in the many-sided world of rock art studies.

Fust, to enhance an understanding of rock art, I feel there is a need to break away from the tradition of focusing on the figures themselves, and to include not only a detailed examination of the relationship to rock surfaces, but also the positioning of the figures on these surfaces. Such an understanding would benefit from more people drawing the panels in addition to photo­graphing them, because drawing provides an interactive way to see structures that bind or separate figures — to see what is between the figures and not reiterate what one thinks one sees, what the brain ‘orders’ one to sec. I encourage us to break away from this tyranny.

Second, the reasons why prehistoric artists chose a particular surface at a particular place are undoubtedly many, as are the reasons for choosing what to (or what not to) depict. Any of these choices involves space, although not necessarily as a decisive factor. At the level of the rock surface, the compositions at Alta and other places indicate that there was a spatial relationship — a need to fit — between individual engravings, composi­tions and the surface. There had to be room enough for making the figures needed; and, judging from the engravings from the earliest period in Alta, size was rea­sonably standardised and choices were non-random. There was not much flexibility in manipulating figure size when the artists assessed fit and positioning.

Third, the position of the figures on the surfaces might be as important as the spatial relationship between the figures and their orientation. This does not mean that individual figures were not important, but does incorporate placement and position as poten­tial meaning-giving factors. In addition, surface gradient and orientation may have played a role, while in Alta as at other places specific features such as colours, cracks and basins were part of the meanings and stories intended within the art. Such features might be one of the reasons why a particular engraving or composition was made on a specific surface. This is a point often made.

Finally, and specific to northernmost Europe, the position of elk on some rock surfaces, as with that of bears, leads me to suggest that it reflects, among other things, a prehistoric division of the universe. The dom­inant location of elk, on the lower sections of slanting panels, places them physically closer to the water’s edge than any of the other figures. Furthermore, the com­bination of boat-elk reinforces the connection to water, as docs the behaviour of the elk. The stories and the position of the elk in the ethnographic record also asso­ciate the elk with water, among other links, and in this way reinforce the observation from the engravings and the behaviour of the animal. The ethnographic record is a vestige of beliefs whose antiquity is unknown, while the engravings are remnants of a world of beliefs vastly pre-dating the ethnographic record. We do not know if there is a connection, but the similarities in what is described ethnographically and observed archaeologicaily are so striking that it is highly likely that there are some similarities in meanings, even if there is no direct historical continuity. A belief that connects the elk with water and the underworld among prehistoric populations is supported by the evidence in the rock are from Alta, as, I would like to add, is a belief in the transport of the souls of the dead in boats with elk heads and the regeneration of life. In these cases it appears that the elk is the boat, with the head in the bow, while the body is the hull and the tail extends from the stern. But from the ethnographic record, as well as from the positioning of the elk at the top of the composition in Kifjord in Alta, the elk also appears to have been a spirit in the upper world. The elk was in all worlds, as was the bear, representing different spirits with different functions and powers. The positioning of the elk in the rock an therefore places it in all worlds, as with the bear, but the elk appears to be more domi­nant in its connection to the lower world. In this way, what is seen in the rock an appears to be a variant of the beliefs in the ethnographic record.


This chapter was first prepared during my sabbatical year, 1999-2000, at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. It has since been amended and revised. I thank the department for giving me access to its facilities and library. It was a good year. I also thank the artist Ernst Hogtun for his drawing (Figure 10.4) and computer graphics, and his willingness to experiment with draw­ings of rock art panels.


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