A Radiocarbon-dated Rock Painting in Finland?

J.-P. Taavitsainen
University of Turku / Archaeology.

In spite of the rapid and intensive development of scientific dating methods, the dating of rock art remains problematic. Relative dating methods, AMS radiocarbon analysis and chronometric techniques seldom give reliable direct dates for rock art (on dating methods see e.g. Whitley, 2005. P. 53–70). This is also the case with rock art found in Russian Lapland (Shumkin, 1990. P. 53–67).

Since the beginning of rock art studies in Finland, the dating method most frequently applied has been shore displacement chronology (Saarnisto, 1969. P. 34–39). This method, however, provides terminus post quem dates. Based on the results of this geological method, the period of painted rock face sites in Finland has been dated to the Stone Age and the Early Metal Period. Estimates of the beginning of the tradition vary between 5 000 and 3 000 cal BC and its end from 1 500 cal BC to 500 AD (Lahelma, 2006. P. 30–31 and cited literature). Seitsonen has also demonstrated that there is stylistic variation in the art through time in the Lake Paijanne and Saimaa areas (Seitsonen, 2005a. P. 1–21; 2005b. P. 405–409; see also Lahelma, 2007. P. 31).

There are, however, Finnish rock-painting sites where artefacts, even datable ones, have been found (Table 1). Like the Saraakallio and Astuvansalmi painting sites, excavations at the well-known Flatruet rock-painting site in Sweden have also revealed arrowheads (Hansson, 2007. P. 79–87). The Finnish and Swedish artefact dates fit well within the dating based on shore displacement chronology. Also other, unfortunately hard-to-date, lithic materials such as quartz and chert have been found in Sweden and Norway [see more closely Adoranden (Adoranden, 2006) and Lahelma’s (Lahelma, 2006. P. 3–6) summary of the Scandinavian and Russian excavations with finds including marks of the use of fire].

Among the paintings listed in Table 1, Valkeisaari at Taipalsaari is an exceptional location providing clues for dating rock art. The paintings on different levels and varying radiocarbon dates pose, however, a chronological problem. Soot scraped from potsherds representing Textile-Impressed Ware has produced the radiocarbon date 3 100±50 BP (Hela—1127) or ca. 1 370 cal BC. Two seeds of edible plants produced an early medieval date. Bones including domesticates gave, not unexpectedly, a historical date. Lahelma has interpreted the site as a ritual deposit and dated it to the Early Metal Period (and possibly later) (Lahelma, 2006. P. 3–23). Flatruet in Sweden mentioned above is a similar case: it has also produced varying radiocarbon dates from the Stone Age and Early Middle Ages (Hansson, 2007. P. 84).

Table 1. Finds associated with Finnish rock-painting sites in the collections of the Finnish National Museum (NM). Modified from Lahelma 2006



Find number(s)

Iitti Kotojärvi

Elk bones

NM 18428: 2-4, 6-7, 10

Bones of water-fowl

NM 18428: 7-8, 10

Iron ore

NM 18428: 9

Laukaa Saraakallio

A fragment of a straight-based arrow

point (porphyrite?)

NM 21774

Flint (gun- or tinder flint?)

NM 27906

Lemi Venäinniemi

A quartz item and flakes

NM 34514:1-2

Quartz fragments (of uncertain

NM 35465: 1-4


Kalamaniemi 2

Flint-and quartz flakes, burnt bone,


NM 31547:1-7

Puumala Syrjäsalmi

A quartz core and flakes (uncertain)

NM 25736: 1-2



Slate arrow point

NM 17636: 1

Straight-based quartz arrow point

NM 17636: 2

Anthropomorphic amber pendant

NM 25771

Anthropomorphic amber pendant

NM 26331: 1

Anthropomorphic amber pendant

NM 26331: 2

Fragment of an amber object

NM 27146

Anthropomorphic sandstone object

NM 26331: 3

Mammalian bone (one fragment)

NM 26331:4



Textile Ware pottery sherds (12

pieces, ca. 2/3 of a vessel)

NM 17040: 1

Anthropomorphic pebble

NM 17040: 2

Fragment of a flint object and two flakes

NM 17040: 3

The finds of the 2005 excavations (quartz items and flakes, pottery,

NM 35202: 1-85

Lahelma’s list also mentions the Kotojarvi rock painting in Iitti, northern Kymenlaakso (fig.1 see on plate). The painting was found by the archaeologists Sinimarja Ojonen, Ushio Maeda and Lasse Ojonen in 1970. It contains two elk figures, a human figure and short superimposed horizontal lines in four places. Sinimarja Ojonen later carried out a small test excavation in the lake bottom in front of the painting. She reports that fragments of a left mandible with the second premolar in situ, and isolated complete left third premolar, fragments of third premolar as well as fragments of the shaft of a left metatarsal bone of Alces alces (identified by Prof. Bjorn Kurten) were found at a depth of approx. 50 cm in the gravel bottom of the lake (Ojonen, 1974. P. 43) (fig. 2 see on plate). The article does not mention that eight bird bones were also found at the same time.

While planning an article of the dating of Finnish rock art, which unfortunately, for so-called general reasons, was never finished I had the Kotojarvi elk bones dated. It is hard to regard elk bones excavated in front of painted figures of elk a mere coincidence. The date of the bones might thus hint at the date of the painting. The bird bones, supposed to be those of water fowl, were left undated due to source-critical reasons: a lake bottom is a natural surrounding for them.

The bones were dated at the radiocarbon laboratory of the Geological Survey of Finland. The result was 3 300±100 (Su—775). When calibrated, the date is 1690 BC (61.8 %) 1 490 BC and 1 480 BC (6.4 %) 1450 BC. Lahelma, however, has had one of the bird bones dated (on the identifications, see Mannermaa, 2003. P. 38). A bone identified as woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), not actually water fowl, was dated. The result was 3 275±35 BP (Hela—1434), cal. 1 620 BC (68.2 %) 1515 BC. In fact, the date is identical with the previous one (fig. 3). The results, the turn of the Stone Age and Early Metal Period, is not radical, being well in accordance with previous dates. All the bones obviously belong to the same context.

Ojonen writes that it would be tempting to think how the Kotojarvi elk would have been offered or eaten at the painting (Ojonen, 1974. P. 43). Basing on the ethology of elk, the most popular subject of the Finnish paintings, and traditional ways of hunting, I have suggested that rock-painting sites may have been kill sites where different rituals were performed (Taavitsainen, 1978. P. 179–195). Whatever the general interpretation of rock paintings, we are certainly dealing with ritual deposits with regard to the finds described here. As Lahelma’s excavations at the Valkeisaari painting demonstrate, also renewed excavations at Kotojarvi would certainly bring new finds to light and new scholarly interpretations would follow.