Petroglyphs of the Old Zalavruga: new data – a new insight

N.V. Lobanova


Petroglyphs of the Old Zalavruga: new data – a new insight


            In September 2005, the joint expedition of archaeologists from Russian Karelia and Great Britain (Institute of Language, Literature and History, Karelian Research Centre, Russian Academy of Science and the Cambridge University) which studied Belomorsk petroglyphs and their correlations with the microlandscape made a totally unexpected discovery. They found many new figures in the Old Zalavruga – one of the best known and well documented rock art groups in Karelia. The new materials not simply more than double the number of known engravings on the rock, but also recast the commonly held views on the genesis of ancient rock art in the White Sea area.

            Our discovery was made possible by the application of a new technique for petroglyph search borrowed from our Norwegian colleagues. The procedure is very simple: a large piece of black light-proof polyethylene (at least 4 x 5 m) is spread over rock surface. Sitting underneath the material, the researcher slightly lifts it at one end (optimally, the one covering the upper part of the rock). The amount and direction of the light coming through the opening is controlled by the rock slope and the height to which the film is lifted so that ancient engravings gain relief and become easily distinguishable. This method is widely practiced in Scandinavia. One can get good results taking photographs under such polyethylene film. We have thus surveyed the rocks of the Old Zalavruga and three nameless islets, which also yielded new figures. There is very high chance of finding them on heavily weathered rocks of the New Zalavruga, too (groupings I, VIII, XI, XV, XVII).

            The Old Zalavruga was discovered by the expedition headed by Ravdonikas on September 5, 1936. It is situated 1.5 km away from the village of Vygostrov, on the gentle right-hand bank of a nearly dry channel in the western part of the Bolshoi Malinin Island, 300 m upstream from where it joins the Vyg River mainstream, locally called Zalavruda (fig. 1). In scientific usage however the name of the site was modified to Zalavruga (Равдоникас 1936). The channel at the site gets very narrow, whereas the riverside slope (10-15°) composed of hard crystalline schist is quite wide. Engravings occupy slightly over 200 m2. In total, 216 individual images were recorded from the site in three isolated plots, each on a separate rock or its protruding part. The recording procedure was as follows: the engravings, thoroughly covered with chalk solution, were copied to tracing paper whereupon photographs of the sheets of tracing paper were taken. The first (northern) plot contains only 16 barely discernible figures, and the third one – the so-called southern rock – is now regarded part of grouping XV of the New Zalavruga (Савватеев 1970, p. 61-63). The majority of the engravings (190) were found on the central rock with the upper and the side slopes distinguished. Visually, they are perceived as two groups of petroglyphs, if these are understood as clusters of engravings visible from one point. Furthermore, there is certain difference in style between the images on the upper and the side slopes, giving researchers a reason to date them to different time periods. A publication by Ravdonikas (Равдоникас 1938, tab. 2) contains a summary table of petroglyphs from the central rock where one can see large gaps – portions of the rock bearing no images, especially in the southern and south-eastern parts of the rock surface (fig. 2).

            Ravdonikas regarded the discovery of the Old Zalavruga petroglyphs as a momentous event of exceptional scientific significance. The rock holds commonly recognized masterpieces of the Neolithic rock art of Northern Europe – realistic images of skiers, graceful reindeers with branchy antlers, unique giant reindeer figures, etc. On the other hand, the Old Zalavruga is one of the most poorly preserved petroglyph groups in Karelia. Signs of natural and human-induced degradation are obvious here: glacial scars, numerous hollows and cracks produced by water and frost, lichens and traces of recent campfires. This makes field surveys of the monuments a challenging task. Ravdonikas believed the studies to be urgent, since part of the petroglyphs could hardly be recorded and the degradation proceeded. It was not until the 1960s however that field works with this petroglyph group were resumed. Rubbings of the Old Zalavruga were made by Savvateev during field recording of the newly discovered groupings of the New Zalavruga. His conclusion was that many of the figures recorded by the discoverer had grown virtually indiscernible, and some (especially those in the upper plot) had either vanished or nearly so (Савватеев 1970, p. 63).

            Our field surveys show that the condition of the Old Zalavruga petroglyphs is not so dramatic. It is quite stable – at least no further destruction has taken place since the 1930s. This can be seen from comparing field materials from different time periods, first of all rubbings and photographs.

            Examining the central rock surface using the new technique we spotted all petroglyphs published by Ravdonikas (part of these have been copied) and 284 new images (tab. 1). The figures revealed under film were outlined with chalk and then photographed. In addition, several rubbings including new images were made. The greatest number of new engravings was found in the SE and NE parts of the rock surface (fig. 3). The most amazing result was detection of engravings within larger images. The point is that the specialty of the Old Zalavruga – three metres large reindeer figures – were engraved with bigger and rougher stone tools. The line along figure edges was slightly deeper compared to the more superficial and less thorough engraving of the rest of the surface. Researchers have noted this fact earlier, too (Равдоникас 1938, p. 22). It was owing to the rough imprinting of the outline that we managed to see earlier works within larger figures. These were images of boats, harpoon lines, a reindeer and a variety of undetermined fragments. Later on, one would possibly be able to get more information about their outlines. More cases of palimpsest were revealed in the northern part of the rock surface. These will be discussed later. It had so far been very rare among petroglyphs of Karelia that engravings overlapped each other (Пойкалайнен 1989), whereas this site is the first one where the already occupied rock space was reused.

            Thus, the central rock of the Old Zalavruga turned out to be densely filled with ancient engravings almost all over. They totalled nearly 500 pieces, so that the aggregation can be regarded the largest in Karelia. Note that the examination is not complete yet, and more engravings are certain to be found in the cluster. The southern part of the rock has been defaced by recent campfires. Judging by remaining fragments of deer figures (fig. 3-4), it also used to be filled with engravings. One can expect also that figures over the head of the giant reindeer in the middle would be discernible under polyethylene film. Researchers used to perceive them as unusually abundant antlers. In reality, they are anthropomorphic figures and perhaps also boats heavily damaged by weathering and therefore not easy to distinguish.

            Most numerous among the new petroglyphs are human and animal tracks (202), boats (43) and figure fragments (44) (tab. 1). Researchers who visited the site before paid no attention to the plentiful small marks in the northern and north-eastern parts of the rock, although these could be seen in other places as well. Among these, one can distinguish rounded tracks smaller than 1 cm, with hollows resembling hoofs (reindeer), and elongated, sometimes fingered, most probably human tracks from battle scenes (fig. 4). Many of them appear to have been made with a special sharply pointed quartz tool. Large human tracks 15-20 cm long (fig. 5) similar to those from the Besovy Sledki group have also been found.

            Our greatest interest was caused by unmanned boats of an uncommon type. Lines arranged into “windows” have been hammered inside their hull, and the bow is depicted as an elongated protrusion. This might be a way to portray frame boats in contrast to the usual dugout canoes. Such motifs do sometimes occur in the New Zalavruga (grouping XI) and among Onego petroglyphs (Kochkovnavolok Peninsula and Cape Karetskiy Nos) (fig. 6), but researchers had so far demonstrated no interest. Two new outlined boats engraved close to each other are travelling in different directions. A curving line ending in a circle runs from one of them – it probably symbolizes the “anchor” (fig. 7-b:28-30). A similar figure was recorded (although not very accurately) by Ravdonikas nearly 2 m SE of the outlined unanchored boat (fig. 7-a). Researchers termed the image a “boat frame”. Linevskiy’s interpretation was that the boat had belonged to strangers from the sea, but was burnt down by the natives in a battle (Линевский 1939, p. 186).

            The figure nearby that used to be interpreted as an “outlined fish” with the tail and fins turned out to be a composite picture of beluga whale hunting (fig. 7-a, 7-b). The tail proved to be a boat, and the outer contour of the “fish” – harpoon lines. The manned boat recorded in the 1930s was involved in the hunt. The scene apparently includes 6 boats and 4 beluga whales. No sea hunting motifs had been known from the Old Zalavruga before. By today, at least three have been detected, all engraved in the NE of the rock surface. The engravings we have found are in very poor condition since later anthropomorphic figures – battle scene heroes – were hammered on top of them.

Totally uncommon is the spiral discovered east of the back of the first (right-hand) large reindeer in the SE part of the rock (fig. 8). It seems to be connected to the reindeer hind leg, thus representing part of a composite scene. This 5x3 m plot contains the greatest number of newly discovered figures (at least 50) – mostly boats of varying size and shape, although typical of the White Sea area rock art (fig. 9).

            Three large reindeer images cover many scenes involving boats and other figures – at least 15 individual images in total (fig. 3). A long narrow boat, which must be a part of the known composite scene in the central panel, as well as a clear outline of a small reindeer moving in the same direction as figures in the western reindeer chain and similar to those in style have been detected almost in the centre of the first animal’s body. Of interest is an odd rectangular engraving with two or three rows of gaps inside it. Two lines depart from it in different directions (fig. 7). Ravdonikas recorded only a small fragment of the engraving. About the centre of the body of the first reindeer there is a clear reindeer outline and another long boat, which appears to be part of the known composite scene in the central panel. A challenging task for the future is to identify as accurately as possible this earlier stratum of petroglyphs.

            Let us mention also some other changes in the interpretation of the rock canvas. There is an unusual image which Ravdonikas perceived as a four-legged animal viewed from above and most resembling a tortoise (Равдоникас 1938, p. 35). Linevskiy saw the image as an animal hide (Линевский 1939, p. 186). A boat is engraved nearby the “tortoise”. Examination underneath black polyethylene film exposed a fairly clear connecting line between the two figures (fig. 10). Quite possibly, the engravings depict another hunt of a sea animal, perhaps the walrus.

            Corrections were introduced to the records of many earlier known figures, even the largest ones. Thus, both legs of the left-hand (third) reindeer were extended and what had previously been regarded as its hoof turned out to be a natural hollow in the rock. New images were detected in the SW part of the rock, below long narrow boats (fig. 11). Here, too, we observe cases of palimpsest.

            Although the number of figures has grown markedly, the main motifs of the Old Zalavruga remained the same – tracks, boats and people. The new materials however enable a new insight into the art stratigraphy in the site. Fundamentally different approaches of leading researchers to interpretation of the engravings had no effect on their ideas about the sequence of emergence of figures and scenes. They all (Линевский 1939, p. 170-189; Савватеев 1970, p. 63-64; Столяр 2000, p. 157-163; 2001, p. 153-154) agreed that giant animals (which are centrally located and predominate), long boats and two converging chains of reindeers appeared first. They were unanimous that the north-eastern (lateral) cluster comprising a multitude of small images was filled after the central part had been utilized. A most detailed reconstruction of the process of filling the rock surface was offered by Stolyar (Столяр 1977, p. 30-37).

            It has now become obvious however that the process in the Old Zalavruga developed vice versa. The earliest images were the small boats in sea hunt scenes. They are situated within the bodies of the middle and left-hand reindeer figures, as well as NE of them – where the discoverers recorded a large outlined fish (fig. 3, 7). These are the northern and north-eastern flanks of the rock surface. Engravings in other parts of the SW and NE slopes – reindeer, long boats – appeared somewhat later. Interestingly, the reindeer with antlers over the head of a large animal figure in the centre of the group which had appeared prior to the latter was itself engraved on top of another small figure.

During the next active stage, numerous scenes involving people were engraved. In some cases, they were pecked on top of the groups with boats, harpoons and beluga whales (fig. 7). Presumably, the tracks densely covering the lower part of the NE slope belong to the same time period. Some later additions have probably been made – images of a serpent, a human front view, an undetermined symbol, a defloration or child delivery scene.

Finally, the very last to be engraved were the three giant reindeer of the same size and moving in the same direction (fig. 3). These images are not just totally strange to the Old Zalavruga context, but have no analogues among petroglyphs of the White Sea area at all. The famous Triad on cape Besov Nos (Demon, burbot and otter), which is of comparable size, also represents a contrast to all other images, and many researchers believe it to be the earliest group with which rock art on the eastern shore of Lake Onego began (Столяр 2001, P. 1, p. 121-122). Given the newly acquired data however, it can be assumed to be more recent, suggesting a different approach to the stages and patterns in the development of ancient monumental art in Karelia.

            As mentioned above, at least three glyph strata from different time periods can be preliminarily distinguished in the Old Zalavruga. It is now impossible to tell how long the sanctuary had been used all in all, or what the time gap between the creation of early and later images had been. The time gap could have been either very short or quite lengthy. The place appears to have served as a ritual site for several generations of people who lived in the lower reaches of River Vyg in the Late Atlantic period. Pit-rhomb pottery sherds found in the uppermost parts of the Zalavruga 1 site can be attributed to this time period (Савватеев 1977; Тарасов, Мурашкин 2002). Chronologically, the White Sea petroglyphs fit within 6000 – 5000 yrs BP as indicated by radiocarbon dates and palaeogeographic data. Relying upon stylistic analysis and the altitude at which the Old Zalavruga petroglyphs are situated (14-15.5 m a.s.l.) many researchers consider them to be one of the latest stages in the development of rock art in the White Sea area (Савватеев 1977, p. 149-160). In our opinion, relatively early periods are also represented here by sea hunting scenes and, perhaps, some other motifs, too. For the conclusions to be better grounded however, further surveys of the rock with detailed recording of all images is necessary.

            The cultural horizons of many settlements near the petroglyphs, the soil deposits, as well as the petroglyph panels themselves were found to contain traces of a powerful Early Subboreal transgression that occurred in the beginning of the third millennium BC. They are particularly distinct on the rocks closest to the shoreline. At that time, Zalavruga was submerged and then covered underneath fluvial deposits, in which cultural remains of settlements with porous and asbestos ceramic ware of different periods of the Early Metal Age (starting the middle of the 3rd millennium BC) were found (Девятова 1976, p. 76-84; Савватеев 1996, p. 140-141; Жульников 2005, p. 27-28).


            Thus, having applied the “Norwegian” search technique in the Old Zalavruga we obtained new data that help understand the sequence of petroglyph emergence on the rock. Earlier glyph layers later on fully or partially overlain by other figures were revealed; previous interpretations of both individual images and multi-figure groups were notably corrected or revised. Furthermore, new engravings were found in the portions of the rock surface previously believed to be empty, some of them showing earlier unknown motifs. The Old Zalavruga now appears in most of its richness and diversity. At least, the conclusion of some researchers about the irreversible loss of many images in the group was disproved. We believe the losses are not so critical indeed.

            Noteworthy are also some other finds made lately in the White Sea area. In 2001-2002, activities within the Karelian-Norwegian project “Conservation of petroglyphs in Karelia” interrupted a nearly 30-year pause in field surveys of petroglyphs in the White Sea area. Since then, the condition of rock art and other archaeological monuments, as well as their natural settings was assessed; for a number of sites detailed topographic surveys and records were made. An important result was the discovery of 40 new pictures in four locations on nameless islets in River Vyg, north of the Besovy Sledki group in Island Shoirukshin (Лобанова 2005). Inspection of the sites is not over yet. Other promising areas to be surveyed for rock art have been selected.

            Simultaneously, one must not forget about other archaeological monuments in the lower reaches of River Vyg – ancient settlements, over 70 of which are known today, some of them definitely synchronous to the rock pictures. Studying them one can gain important support materials for more accurate determination of petroglyph chronology.

            Hence, the priority task for today is to produce a comprehensive inventory of archaeological monuments of the White Sea area relying upon thorough archaeological surveys, to analyze in more detail rock surfaces, rich materials from nearby sites and the ancient natural environment involving experts in natural sciences.




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