Karelian Petroglyphs: Problems of Protection and Reasonable Use

Keywords: petroglyphs, study, preservation and management of rock art.

Karelian rock art belongs to a unique cultural treasure of Northern Europe.It reflects, in a specific form, the spiritual and everyday life of the ancient peoples who inhabited the eastern shore of Lake Onega and lower reaches of the Vyg River in south-western Pribelomorje. They are located about 325 km apart. These carvings have been described in books, encyclopedia and popular-science literature the world over. A. M. Linevsky, a writer and archaeologist, wrote a book for children based on the facts depicted on petroglyphs. The book has become world-famous. The Karelian petroglyphs had been created in the Neolithic Times, about 6,5 thousand years ago. According to many investigators, they may be related to so-called Pit-Comb Ceramics Culture of the Early and Late Neolithic, late-V-IV — early-III thousand BC (Lobanova 1995:359–366). Numerous sites of this culture (and a cemetery) were found around the petroglyph clusters.

The Onega Lake petroglyphs were discovered in 1848 by K. Grevingk, an archaeologist from Saint-Petersburg, and a Petrozavodsk teacher P. Shved (fig.1). They published the first facts about the Lake Onega petroglyphs in 1850. Later (late-19 th — early-20 th centuries), these carvings attracted a lot of attention of both Russian and foreign investigators. The White Sea petroglyphs were discovered in 1926 by A. M. Linevsky, an ethnography student from Leningrad. A local man, G. Matrosov took him to the Island of Shoirukshin and showed Besovy Sledki (Demon’s Footprints) to the young researcher. This surprising and extremely valuable discovery had brought Linevsky to the study of the rock carvings in Karelia. He was the first to begin special investigations on the Karelian rock art (Linevsky 1939).

Later, a number of archaeologists, art experts and amateurs undertook studies of the unique Karelian petroglyphs. In 1935–36, the expedition of V. Ravdonikas, a Leningrad archaeologist, discovered some new groups on the eastern shore of Lake Onega and in the White Sea Region. V. Ravdonokas prepared and published 2 large Catalogues of the Karelian Rock Art Sites (Ravdonikas 1936, 1938). They became a standard of careful documentation and had remained a reference source for many years. A. Linevsky and V. Ravdonikas started a long dispute about the interpretation of the Karelian rock art. The ideas of V. Ravdonokas in the field of interpretation have by now become eminent among researches. On the whole, the 1930 s proved to be very fruitful for the study of ancient carvings in Karelia.

In 1963, an archaeological expedition supervised by Y. A. Savvateev, excavated the sites around petroglyphs and found a new large location of the rock art, Novaya Zalavruga (fig.2) and Jerpin Pudas, including total about 1300 separate images (Savvateyev 1977). Unfortunately, since the 1970 s, no petroglyps investigations have been carried out in the Belomorje. The works of the State Center for the Monuments Protection in 2001 showed that new interesting findings are possible here, especially on small nameless islands (Lobanova 2001).

In the 1970 s, Savvatejev’s team investigated petroglyphs at Lake Onega. Long-term visual investigations of the lakeside rocks under favorable sun light, by illuminating them with mirrors in the day-time and searchlight at night, graphitic copying of the most promising parts of the rock surface and, finally, special underwater operations had resulted in opening ten new clusters comprising about 100 figures and more than 200 images in the formerly-found groups and subgroups (Savvateyev 1982). In the course of underwater works, archaeologists discovered 14 under water images on the rock blocks that had broken off from the cliffs at various capes — Karetsky Nos, Besov Nos, Kladovets Nos (fig.3), Peri Nos.

The result of the intensive work at the White Sea area is reflected in Yu. Savvateev’s book “Zalavruga” (Savvateyev 1970). Several popular books and many research articles about the Karelian rock pictures have been written by him. Unfortunately, a two-volume manuscript entitled “The Lake Onega Petroglyphs” written by Yu. Savvateyev and R. Klimov with a complete, by then, catalogue of the sites (with colour reproductions and graphic copies of all the petroglyphs), and views on the evolution and semantics of rock images, has never been published.

During 1982–1992, members of the Estonian Society for Prehistoric Art Investigation thoroughly studied Lake Onega carvings. In 1986–91, they discovered new interesting clusters of rock carvings at the estuary of the Vodla River. Also, they managed to find new images in the previously studied places. The Estonian Society prepared and published a detailed catalogue of petroglyphs of the northern Onega Sanctuary (Poikalainen & Ernits,1998).

There are over 1100 separate carvings and signs at Lake Onega (all within a 20 sq. km area). They are carved in solid crystalline rocks: granite and gneiss granite at the depth of from 1 to 3 mm by pecking dots with quarts implements on the rock surface. They occupy the shore side close to the water, at the height of 0,04–2,62 meters above the lake, that is why they are under effect of adverse natural factors — waves, ice and wind.Contours of the figures closest to the shoreline are rather smoothed over those higher above suffer from different lichens. Among them, there predominate bird images (40%). The presence of anthropomorphous images is a significant feature of the Onega carvings. There are many symbols (fig.4) there and rare figures, such as the Demon, an otter, a sheat-fish, beavers, rods, trees, snakes a human leg, etc.It is very important that Onega carvings should be preserved in the non-disturbed environment similar to that when they were carved 5,500–6,000 years ago. The Besov Nos rock art area belongs to the Muromsky Nature Reserve (established in 1986), but not really protected.

The White Sea carvings are located at the lower reaches of the Vyg River, 1,5 km from the village of Vygostrov, 14 to 22 m above the sea level. There are more than 2 thousand located at a 2 sq. km area. Most of the petroglyphs are small, usually 20 to 50 cm, but their size may vary considerably. Both big (2–3 m) and very small (4–5 cm) figures may occur. The White Sea rock art feature is that there are many famous sea and forest-animal hunting scenes: white-whale and elk hunting (fig.5), battle scenes, etc. shown in a realistic narrative manner, fantastic images are not typical here.

In the late 1950 s and early 1960 s, the Vygostrovsky Water Power Plant was built and the area has changed a lot. One of the clusters was covered with the dam of the Vygostrovsky Water Power Plant. In 1968, a protective pavilion of concrete and glass was built over the northern cluster of Besovy Sledki.

The anthropogenic influence on the sites is obvious in both localities. The monks of the neighboring Muromsky Monastery were the first people who damaged the Lake Onega rock art, approximately in the 15 th century. In the 20 th century, in the 1930 s, a large part of the carved rock was transferred to the Hermitage from the Cape Peri 3. In the explosion, the rock panel was split into several parts and several images had been destroyed including the unique scene of procreation. As a result, the Hermitage Museum has acquired a natural rock with carvings as the exhibit, but the Lake Onega rock sanctuary had lost one of the most interesting groups. Heavy damage to the rock art has been made (and is being made) by ignorant visitors-vandals. Usually they are locals, and there are no special regulations to stop them. Petroglyphs are protected by Law, but the Government is unable to provide a good and effective system of protection of the sites.

Since there are no efficient protection measures established, every now and then the locals build fires in the close vicinity to petroglyphs or even right on them, or else, they engrave their initials and other inscriptions on the Petroglyphs (fig.6). The same modern “art” is registered on the White Sea rock carving area.

The problem of the rock art preservation and conservation is the most important task in connection with tourism development (especially, wild tourism, which remains completely uncontrolled). The government cannot assign sufficient funding to ensure real and efficient protection of the sites. For example, the Pavilion erected over the Besovy Sledki group in 1968 did not implement its protective function. The rock carvings inside it started to change their colour and became poorly visible. In 1999, the wall of the building cracked. As the Ministry of Culture cannot support the repairs of the Pavilion, it was decided to cover the rock pictures with sawdust for a year. Four years have passed since Besovy Sledki site became inaccessible for the visitors after covering. This situation seems to last for much longer.

Rock carvings are considered to be the objects of special attention of the State Centre for the Monuments Protection which is responsible for the Heritage Preservation. But its resources are rather limited. During the last decade, the State Centre took a number of measures. A long-term program of developing some common ways and approaches to document and protect ancient relics, control their management was written. In 1994–1995, 2 projects were prepared. The former defines the protected zones of the rock art, ancient sites and landscapes with the regime of their maintenance. The latter deals with the rock art management in tourism and education. The permissible visitation to the rock art territory was calculated, several tourist routes were also proposed. The projects have currently become out-dated and need a lot of updating, especially in the recreation load.

In 1998–2001, the international “Karelian Petroglyphs Preservation” project carried out a great amount of work. The project was funded by the Cultural Heritage Directorate of the Ministry for Environment of Norway. Experts in various fields took part in the project, as well as devotees and amateurs, who worked as volunteers. The project reached further than the objectives initially set and covered a larger range of issues related to the rock art sites. The documenting of Onega petroglyphs can be considered finished; however, the need for further lichenological monitoring is still evident. For the White Sea petroglyphs, a general examination of the rock art clusters was carried out. Data on the present state of the Karelian petroglyphs have been collected; the most problematic sites demanding special care were defined. At the same time new, very interesting engravings were found and the potential for discoveries is not exhausted yet (fig. 8–9).

Karelian petroglyphs electronic database is the main achievement of Russian-Norwegian cooperation.It has been prepared database control system, including all-important information of carvings: photo documentation, verbal description, rubbings and topographical maps and schemes.

The 4-year Norwegian-Karelian Project has contributed much more in practical activity, education and popularization of the rock art sites than it had been done before. In 1999 and 2001, with some funding from the joint Norwegian-Karelian Project, 5 large information and warning signs were set in the petroglyphs areas. The tourist places at neighboring with the petroglyphs sites were also determined, and the signs were placed there. One of these places was fully equipped for archaeologists’ camps the. There are awnings with tables and benches, a special place to build a fire, several benches without awnings to get the best view of the landscape and some other settings. Unfortunately, by 2003 many signs in the White Sea rock art area and camping place at Besov Nos area were destroyed. These are typical acts of vandalism in the un-protected areas. This could be avoided if the area was guarded and a person in charge of the facilities was appointed. At the same time, it is necessary to raise awareness of the unique cultural heritage and make rock art areas in Karelia more attractive for tourists. The use of rock art sites in cultural tourism would promote the involvement of local people in the tourist business where they could provide hospitality, services, guiding, etc.

As the cultural tourism is rapidly developing in Karelia, a crucial task is integrated assessment of the state of the Onega petroglyphs and the environment as a whole, including other archaeological sites, determination of the carrying capacity on the territory and the monuments themselves. This work shall involve, apart from archaeologists, experts in landscapes, environmentalists, geologists, etc. The acquired data will enable researchers to prepare a scientific basis for organization of reserve-museums in the petroglyphs area. The White Sea rock area has more advantages for promoting tourism. So, managing approaches should vary for rock art areas in Karelia. Another equally important goal is to conduct a large-scale awareness campaign for local people. They should get knowledge about the monuments; learn to respect ancient art, to protect petroglyphs and the surrounding nature.

True preservation of rock art for future generation requires a whole complex of serious measures from the state, involving other state-holders, individuals, and sufficient funding.


  • Linevsky, A. M. 1939. Petroglify Karelii. Petrozavodsk.
  • Ravdonikas, V. I, 1936. Naskalnye izobrazheniya Onezhskogo ozera. Vol.1, Moskva-Leningrad.
  • Ravdonikas, V. I, 1938. Naskalnye izobrazheniya Belogo moraya. Vol. 2, Moskva-Leningrad.
  • Savvateyev, Yu. A. 1970. Zalavruga. “Nauka”, Leningrad.
  • Savvateyev, Yu. A. 1977. Rock pictures (Petroglyphs) of the White Sea. Bollettino del Centro Camuno di Studi prehistorici — Vol. XVI: 67–86.
  • Savvateyev, Yu. A. 1982. Rock pictures of Lake Onega Bollettino del Centro Camuno di Studi prehistorici — Vol. XIX: 27–48.
  • Poikalainen, V., Ernits, E. 1998. The Rock Carvings of Lake Onega: the Vodla region, Tartu.
  • Lobanova. N. 1995. Petroglyphs of the Kochkovnavolok Peninsula: dating, natural environment and the material culture of their creators: 359–366. Perceiving Rock Art: Social and Political Perspectives, Oslo.
  • Lobanova, N. 2001. Field report on the joint international project “Preservation of the Karelian Rock Art”. Archive of the State Centre for the Protection of the Monuments, Ministry of Culture Republic of Karelia, Petrozavodsk.
  • Lobanova, N. 2003. Karelian Rock Art Database: Abstracts of 9-th Annual Meeting European Association of Archaeologists, 10–14 September, St. Petersburg. P.30.


Nadezhda Lobanova,
researcher of the Archaeological Department of the Institute of Language, Literature and History, Karelian Research Centre, Russian Academy of Sciences.

Anohin str., 26-A — 40
185035 Petrozavodsk Karelia, Russia
nadezhdal@onego.ru; iman@krc.karelia.ru