Communicating with «Stone Persons»: Anthropomorphism, Saami Religion and Finnish Rock Art

Antti Lahelma
University of Helsinki, Finland
Institute for Cultural Research, Department of Archaeology
P. O. Box 59, 00014 Helsingin yliopisto

‘Christ-like’ shell to go on sale

A bar manager in Switzerland has announced plans to sell an oyster shell
resembling the face of Jesus Christ, according to local media. Matteo Brandi, 38,
may hope to repeat the success of a Florida woman who sold a piece of toast
said to bear an image of the Virgin Mary for $28,000. The Italian said
he had found the shell, whose contents have since been eaten,  in a batch two years ago.
The oyster stuck to his hand as if God was calling him, he said.
BBC news 13.1.2005

Introduction: The “Face on Mars”

In 1976, the American space probe Viking 1Orbiter took a photograph of the surface ofthe planet Mars, showing a region called Cydonia. The photo seems to show an enormoushuman face, almost 1.5 km long from one endto the other, staring back at the cameras of thespaceship. Amused by the discovery, NASA scientists published the image with a captionthat described it as showing eroded mesa-likelandforms, including a “huge rock formationin the centre, which resembles a human head[...] formed by shadows giving the illusion ofeyes, nose and mouth” (Jet Propulsion Laboratory 1976).

Fig. 1. A photograph (P-17384) of the Cydonia region of Mars,
taken by Viking 1 on the 31st of July 1976.
The “face” is located in the upper central part of the image.
Photo: NASA.

NASA hardly anticipated the reactioninspired by the photograph. In the past threedecades, the “Face on Mars” has become anicon of popular culture, a common elementof conspiracy theories and UFO-mythology (Sagan 1996: 52-55). Interpreted in lay literature as the vestiges of a lost civilization,the “face” has been compared to the Sphinxof Giza and the Shroud of Turin, featured innumerous ‘New Age’ books, Internet pagesand even a major Hollywood movie (Mission to Mars, directed by Brian De Palmain 2000). More detailed images of the rock-formation taken by Mars Global Surveyorin 1998 and 2001 have thrown cold water ontheories of ancient Martian civilizations, andthe whole incident could easily be dismissedas being just another example of the “lunaticfringe” of science. However, there is a more interesting side to this story that has to do with anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things suchas rock formations.

People attribute human shape and qualities (such as agency) to the widest range ofobjects and phenomena imaginable. The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie (1993) has argued that anthropomorphism is a universal strategy that logically arises from a kind of betting game. Guthrie writes that

[...] we anthropomorphize because guessing that the world is humanlike is a good bet. It is a bet because the world is uncertain, ambiguous, and in need of interpretation. It is a good bet because the most valuable interpretations usually are those that disclose the presence of whatever is important to us. That usually is other humans. (Guthrie 1993: 3).

Because our species has evolved in environments where we have to deal with both predators and prey, our cognitive systems have evolved so as to work on a ‘better safe than sorry’ principle that leads to ‘hyper-sensitive agent detection’. Since early prehistory, the most important elements in the environments of both humans and animals have been other humans and animals. Humans and animals affect our lives more than anything else, both negatively and positively, making it vital to detect all possible animals and humans in our environments. Humans, therefore, have a deeply intuitive tendency of projecting human features onto non-human aspects of the environment, and we commonly perceive intentional agency even in ‘dead’ objects. We speak of “Mother Nature”, talk to a car or a computer as if it could understand us, or mistake an upright rock for a human. Guthrie sees a close relationship between anthropomorphism and animism; in his view, both anthropomorphism and animism arise from the same, largely unconscious perceptual strategy of detecting humans and animals (Guthrie 1993: 61). This strategy inevitably leads to numerous errors, but according to Guthrie, these are “reasonable errors” in the sense that they increase our chances of survival. In an ambiguous and threatening world, making such errors gives us an evolutionary advantage over the reverse strategy of assuming no agents without concrete proof of their presence. It yields more in occasional big wins and avoiding big losses than it costs in more frequent little failures. As a consequence, our intuition does not require much solid evidence for detecting agency, but easily ‘jumps into conclusions’.

The relevance of the “Face on Mars” or an oyster shell claimed to bear the face of Jesus Christ to archaeology may not be immediately clear. To most archaeologists, such phenomena would probably appear strange or ridiculous, because in modern Western culture anthropomorphism is rarely attributed any spiritual significance. But however bizarre such things may appear, they bear evidence of the pervasiveness of anthropomorphism even in today’s world. Many non-Western peoples do attribute cultural meanings — often related to animism — to anthropomorphic rocks and similar “natural” phenomena. And because anthropomorphism and animism are (according to Guthrie 2002) strategies that are shared not only by anatomically modern humans but even many animal species, we should be prepared to encounter them in prehistory also.

Anthropomorphism and Finnish rock art

Although the examples discussed by Guthrie are mostly taken from contemporary advertising, arts, theology, philosophy, etc., he does present a few instances of anthropomorphism in a prehistoric context (e.g. Guthrie 1993: 120, 134-135) and it seems easy to find more. In this paper I will concentrate on the case of seeing “faces” in natural rock formations, particularly in Finnish rock art and Saami (Lapp) sacred sites known as sieidi.

Finnish rock paintings

Finnish rock art, which consists of paintings only, is typically located on outcroppings of rock (usually granite or gneiss) that form vertical surfaces rising directly from a lake (Kivikäs 1995, 2000, 2005, Taskinen 2000, Lahelma 2005). Only a few paintings do not conform to this general pattern of location: in less than ten cases, paintings have been made on large boulders rather than cliffs, and a small number of sites are associated with flowing water rather than lakes. There is not, however, a single painting known that is not (or has not been) intimately associated with water.

The number of rock paintings known to exist in Finland today is a little over one hundred. Some of these may be ‘pseudopaintings’ or natural accumulations of red ochre, but at least 90 sites have identifiable figures and are likely to be of a prehistoric date. All the paintings are made with red ochre and feature a limited range of motifs, including images of elks, boats, stick-figure humans hand stencils and geometric signs. Interpretations given to the art include hunting magic (Sarvas 1969), totemism (Autio 1995) and shamanism (e.g. Siikala 1981, Lahelma 2001, 2005). Of these, shamanism is commonly favoured today (e.g. Miettinen 2000 calls it a ‘canonical’ interpretation), even though alternative interpretations still persist alongside the shamanistic one.

Fig. 2. Distributions of prehistoric rock paintings
(dark grey areas, based on Kivikäs 1995 with additions)
and historically known sieidi (light grey areas, based on Sarmela 2000)
in Finland, with some of the sites discussed shown.
The distributions overlap in a small area in Northern Finland,
close to the eastern border, where two rock paintings have been found.

Geographically the paintings are concentrated in the Finnish Lake Region in the central and eastern parts of the country. The area around Lake Saimaa is particularly rich in rock paintings, but some sites are located far from this main rock art region. Five sites have been found in the vicinity of Helsinki, two in the far northeast of the country, and one site in the southwest, close to Turku (Åbo). Although the first rock painting in Finland was discovered already in 1911, the vast majority of sites have only been found in the past three decades. One may therefore still expect the distribution map to change somewhat.

Because the paintings are almost without exception associated with water, they can be dated by the shore displacement method. The Holocene isostatic land uplift and associated tilting of the Fennoscandian landmass has been a major factor in the formation of the Finnish landscape. As a result of these processes, some paintings evidently originally made from a boat close to the surface of a lake are now situated more than ten meters above water. Assuming that no scaffolding or other artificial means were used to paint higher than water level (which seems like a rather safe assumption to make), the probable age of the paintings can be calculated based on our knowledge of the hydrological history of Finnish lakes. According to current understanding, the paintings of the large Lake Saimaa region date from approximately 5000-1500 cal. BC (Jussila 1999; Seitsonen 2005a), and similar datings have been suggested for other areas as well (e.g. Seitsonen 2005b). This locates the paintings mainly within the period of the Subneolithic Comb Ware cultures, which practiced a hunting-gathering-fishing economy. However, the rock painting tradition appears to continue to the early part of the Early Metal Period (1900 cal. BC — 300 cal. AD). Evidence of barley cultivation as early as 2200 cal. BC has recently been found in the Lake Region (Mika Lavento pers. comm.) Seeing that many of the finds associated with the rock paintings date from the Early Metal Period (fig. 10), rock paintings appear still to have been in active use when primitive agriculture was introduced in the Lake Region.

Fig. 10. Finds associated with Saami sacred sites and Finnish rock paintings.
The data for Saami sacred sites is taken from Manker 1957, table 3.
(NM = Finnish National Museum collections).

Seeing “faces” at rock art sites

All humans are fascinated with faces and face- like shapes. Even newborn infants show an interest in human faces, and children display great competence in recognising emotions, attractiveness or individual features of human faces already at a very young age (Johnson & Morton 1991). When children grow, faces acquire emotional and social significance. As Guthrie writes, “Choosing among interpretations of the world, we remain condemned to meaning, and the greatest meaning has a human face” (Guthrie 1993: 204). This fascination with faces is not learned, but based on human biology, and appears to have been characteristic of hominids for hundreds of thou- sands of years (see below). Seeing “faces” innatural objects is thus a particularly interesting case of the process of anthropomorphism. That some of the cliffs where rock paintings occur in Finland exhibit human-like “faces” has been recognised for some time. The archaeologist Jussi-Pekka Taavitsainen was the first to publish this observation in 1981, although according to Milton Núñez (pers. comm.) it was first discovered by Ushio Maeda, a Japanese exchange student who studied archaeology at the University of Helsinki in the early 1970’s. Maeda noticed that the large and important rock painting site of Astuvansalmi resembles a huge human face in profile view, its eyelids closed, as if it were sleeping (fig. 3a). Taavitsainen presented three further examples — the paintings of Mertakallio, Löppösenluola and Valkeisaari, all located in South-Eastern Finland (Taavitsainen 1981, figs. 1, 3 and 4). Of these, the three first mentioned sites include formations that are said to resemble a human face in profile, where as at Valkeisaari, it is possible to recognise a human face in frontal view. The above mentioned sites remain among the most striking examples of anthropomorphism in Finnish rock art.

Fig. 3. Some Finnish rock painting sites that have been perceived as anthropomorphic in shape:
a) Astuvansalmi, b) Lakiasuonvuori, c) Viherinkoski A, d) Mertakallio.
Photos: Eero Siljander (a), Antti Lahelma (b & d), Miikka Pyykkönen ©

Several other examples of anthropomorphic rock painting sites have been presented. Miettinen sees a human face in profile in the painted rock of Verla (Pentikäinen & Miettinen 2003: 12). At the site of Lakiasuonvuori it is possible to distinguish two faces, one in profile (Pentikäinen & Miettinen 2003: 11) and one resembling half of a human face (fig. 3b), seen as if it were peering from behind a corner. The painted boulder of Viherinkoski A (fig. 3c) has the rough appearance of a human head. The site of Ilmuksenvuori includes two features that have attracted the attention of modern observers. One is a large granite head, with a nose, chin and eyes formed by the natural features of rock, rising from the lake (Kivikäs 2000: 42-43). Some remains of red ochre paint can be seen on the “head,” but it does not seem to have been applied to make the features more human-like. A second human-like formation at the same site illustrates the pitfalls associated with these kinds of observations. Kivikäs notes the “gnome-like” shape of the formation, but fails to appreciate the fact that it consists of rapakivi-granite — an easily crumbling type of rock that is unlikely to have retained its shape for millennia.

The list of purportedly anthropomorphic sites could be continued. But regardless of the number of examples presented, this kind of “face-spotting” remains a somewhat dubious branch of rock art research. Recognising human features in natural cliffs is a fundamentally subjective experience. How can we, in the absence of living informants, know what formations were considered anthropomorphic by a Stone Age people? And how can even begin to guess what (if any) cultural meanings were attached to them? Did these “faces” in rock stimulate religious feelings or just amusement and curiosity?

Although the significance of anthropomorphic natural formations is clearly a difficult subject for prehistoric archaeology, a number ways to tackle the question can be suggested. It would, for example, be possible to arrange different kinds of experiments in which test persons are brought to the vicinity of an “anthropomorphic” rock and asked to record their observations. Something like this was attempted in 1993, when two young Khanty brothers, Yeremey and Ivusef Sopotchin, were brought to the rock painting of Astuvansalmi and their behaviour at the site was observed. The brothers, sons of a Khanty shaman, are said to have immediately recognised the cliff as a sacred site and to have forbidden anyone from climbing on top of it. Furthermore, they claimed to recognise some of the paintings as representing scenes from Khanty mythology, made sacrifices of money, muttered prayers in Khanty and acted out a ritual shooting of the rock (Pentikäinen 1994, Pentikäinen & Miettinen 2003: 13-16). However, the artificial set- ting of this experiment does not seem to stand to closer scrutiny. The Khanty are natives of the extremely flat River Ob region, where rocky cliffs such as Astuvansalmi practically do not exist (Jordan 2003: 79). Moreover, given the costly arrangements of the trip and the presence of academics and reporters (whose employer, a popular magazine called Seura, had paid for the experiment), it seems more than likely that the brothers had an idea of what kind of behaviour was expected of them and have performed accordingly.

A second approach lies in studying the paintings themselves, which may provide clues concerning the meanings associated with the rock. At some Palaeolithic caves, rock formations have been artificially emphasised with paint so as to make them more human- like in appearance (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998: 90-91). These provide evidence that the Palaeolithic painters perceived some rock formations as anthropomorphic and assigned a special significance to them. Examples of similar treatment of the rock surface are difficult to find in Finnish rock art, but the painting of Uutelanvuori (fig. 4) in South- Eastern Finland should be mentioned, even though the case is tentative at best. The site includes a protruding, fractured formation of rock (height 2.5 m) that has the rough appearance of a human being (head and upper part of the torso) facing left. A ring-shaped figure and some vertical strokes have been painted on the formation, possibly in order to form the “eye” of the anthropomorph and to enhance its outlines (Kivikäs 1995: 208-209; Miettinen 2000: 101-103).

Finally, analogies to the anthropomorphic rocks may be sought in ethnographic literature. This clearly seems to be the most promising route of investigation. As Núñez (1995) has pointed out, perhaps the best parallels for Finnish rock paintings in recent ethnography appear to be found in the Saami cult of the sieidi, or sacred stones worshipped as exhibiting a supernatural power. But before reviewing these parallels, let us take a closer look at what the sieidi are and how they should be understood.

Similarities between Saami sieidi and Finnish rock paintings

As numerous authors (e.g. Holmberg 1915, Itkonen 1948, Manker 1957, Hultkrantz 1985, Mulk 1994) have pointed out, Saami religion and religious practice was deeply rooted in space and landscape, enacted through topographic myths and sacred sites. The sieidi (variously spelled seita, seite, siejdde, etc., and called sihtti, bassi or storjunkare in some sources) are a group of sacred sites, most commonly consisting of a large rock that was perceived as being somehow distinct from its surrounding landscape. Although the word may be a relatively late loan from Norwegianseid < Old Norse seið®, as Parpola (2004) has recently argued, the cult of the sieidi is generally considered to belong to the most archaic aspects of Saami pre-Christian religion with possible Stone Age roots (e.g. Itkonen 1948: 67, Hultkrantz 1985: 25, Sarmela 2000: 45).

Aside from large boulders, a sieidi could consist of a solid cliff, an entire island, peninsula or mountain. In such cases, the sanctity of the site was often concentrated on a small object, usually a strangely-shaped stone, which served as the focus of worship. And while most of the sieidi were stationary and fixed in the landscape, some could be moved around on migrations. Historical sources speak of wooden sieidi also, but although wooden ‘idols’ were undoubtedly worshipped by the Saami, it is unclear if the Saami in fact called them sieidi or not (Manker 1957: 30). Hundreds of sieidi are known throughout Northern Fennoscandia (Manker 1957). In Finland, the number of known sites is a little over one hundred. Itkonen (1948: 316-321) lists 88 stone sieidi in Northern Finland, but his list can be complemented from other sources (e.g. Paulaharju 1932). No comprehensive study of the Finnish sites has yet been completed.

The sieidi were intimately associated with Saami means of subsistence, particularly with hunting and fishing, but in later history also with reindeer herding. By worshipping a sieidi and sacrificing a share of the hunted animals or fish to it, one could broker for hunting- or fishing luck. Apart from hunting luck, the sieidi were thought to be able to bestow health, safe travel and general success in life and act as oracles consulted when making important decisions. At some of the sieidi, the Saami shamans or noaidi would chant joiks and fall in trance. The economic association of the sieidi is reflected in their locations (Paulaharju 1932: 10-11). Fishermen’s sieidi are always located close to fishing waters (Hultkrantz 1985: 25-26), where as hunters of wild rein- deer usually had their sieidi in the mountains and those of reindeer herders are located close to migratory routes. The powers of the sieidi varied. Particularly powerful ones were widely worshipped by the Saami regardless of livelihood (the island of Äijih [or Ukonsaari] in Finnish Lapland is a famous example; see Bradley 2000: 3-5), while others were private and worshipped by a single family.

Anthropo- or zoomorphic shape has been regarded as a characteristic feature of the sieidi. It was not necessary for a stone to be human-like in order to be considered sacred, but according to some sources (e.g. Itkonen 1948: 310) human features made the stone more powerful. Such stones were, according to Itkonen, called keäd’ge-olmuš (“stone person”), where as non-anthropomorphic stones were called passe-keäd’gi (“sacred stone”). In spite of this, an anthropomorphic shape does not seem to have been a very common trait. Although many written sources stress the human form of the sieidi, this may to some extent reflect the views of outside observers. Rather than mentioning human shape, Saami stories and legends typically speak of spirit beings that revealed the locations of sieidi in dreams, or of accidents and strange occurrences (Itkonen 1948: 320).

Fig. 5. The famous sieidi of Taatsi in Kittilä, Finnish Lapland, was reminiscent of a human face in profile.
The sieidi was vandalised in the early part of the 20 th century, and only a part of the rock remains today.
Photo taken by Samuli Paulaharju in 1920 (Finnish National Board of Antiquities).

In Manker’s list of 220 stone and cliff ‘idols’ worshipped by the Saami, an anthropomorphic figure was associated with 28 sites and a further 25 sites were seen as zoomorphic (Manker 1957: 34, table 2). The ratio of anthropomorphic vs. non-representative rocks thus seems to be similar in both the sieidi and the Finnish rock paintings. Human shapes seen in the rock include faces, commonly seen in profile, sitting figures and (more rarely) standing figures. Examples described by Manker as particularly humanlike include the sitting “male” figure of Ruksiskerke, the “female” figure at Riokokallo, a striking figure of a face seen in profile at Passekårtje, the human-like stone at Håbbot, with an open mouth that received offerings of tobacco, and the stones of Datjepakte and Fatmomakke (Manker’s [1957] survey numbers 57, 168, 243, 359, 404 and 458). In Finland, famous examples of anthropomorphic sieidi include the ‘god of Taatsi’ in Kittilä (fig. 5) and the sieidi of Somasjäyri in Enontekiö (fig. 6). Regarding the zoomorphic sieidi, Manker (1957: 34) notes that most of them appear to resemble birds in shape, which corresponds to statements made by Niurenius and Lundius in the 17th century that the Saami worship ‘bird-shaped’ stones (cited in Manker 1957: 31-32).

Fig. 6. The sieidi of Somasjäyri in Enontekiö, Finnish Lapland, appears Janus-faced:
a human profile can be distinguished on two sides of the stone. Photo: Petri Halinen.

Similarities in landscape and ‘soundscape’

Aside from the anthropomorphic features, several other similarities exist between the Finnish rock paintings and Saami sieidi. Similarities in topography are perhaps the most obvious example, although insufficient data concerning the precise locations of Finnish sieidi prevent a detailed analysis. The sieidi and rock paintings are by no means identically located. The sieidi can, for example, be located on hill- or mountaintops with no water nearby, which is never the case with Finnish rock paintings. But differences are only to be expected, given the fact that most rock paintings are found in low-lying lake regions and most sieidi known to us lie in northern mountain country, where lakes are comparatively rare.

The association with anomalous topography is perhaps the most striking similarity. For example, small caves and cavities are found both at the sieidi, such as the island of Äijih (Ukonsaari), and some rock paintings, including the sites of Kurtinvuori, Enkelinpesä and Ukonvuori (Kivikäs 1995: 111-113, 123, 105-107). Many of the sieidi are large erratic boulders that command the surrounding landscape. Seven Finnish rock paintings are similarly located on such boulders, often identical in terms of shape, size and location. Much more commonly, the rock paintings are located on steep cliffs rising from water’s edge. Cliffs such as these are not particularly common locations for sieidi, but some do ex- ist. The cliff of Taatsinkirkko (‘The Church of Taatsi’) in Kittilä, Finnish Lapland, is a prime example: a steep cliff rising directly from the water, no different from the typical rock painting site except for the fact that it does not feature painted figures (fig. 7). A similar cliff called Algažjáurpáht is described by Itkonen (1948: 320) as having been considered particularly powerful by the Skolt Saami, who believed that it was inhabited by the people of the underworld (mádd-vuolažou’mo). These were said to be awake during the nights, and on a still summer night one could hear them talking inside the cliff. Making noise while passing the cliff by water was strictly forbidden and, having passed the sacred rock, a sip of alcohol was drunk in honour of the sieidi. If neglected, the cliff could take revenge by raising a snowstorm.

Fig. 7. The sieidi of Taatsinkirkko, Finnish Lapland.
Photo taken by Samuli Paulaharju in 1920 (Finnish National Board of Antiquities).

There is some indication that cliffs rising from a lakeshore may have been considered sacred at least partly because of an anomalous ‘soundscape’, such as an exceptional echo. In the early 20th century, an informant told the ethnographer Samuli Paulaharju that sacrifices were made and ‘sieidi-prayers’ sung at the sieidi of Taatsinkirkko because of the echo: “Water runs and drops there and echoes, as if someone was preaching. It is like a room ... [The Saami] sang there because the cliff resounded” (Paulaharju 1932: 50, my translation). The idea that an exceptional echo may have affected rock art location cross-culturally has been argued by Waller (2002), who observes that echoing has been personified by numerous cultures and interpreted as emanating from spirits. Waller writes:

Given the propensity of ancient cultures for attributing echoes to spirits, it follows that the actual rock surfaces that produce echoes would have been considered dwelling places for those spirits. It is reasonable to theorize that locations with such echoing surfaces would have therefore been considered sacred. Typical sound-reflecting locations include caves, canyons, cliff faces, outcroppings and large boulders – precisely the characteristic locations where rock art is found. (Waller 2002: 12)

It is not difficult to see how a notion of spirits living inside the lakeshore cliffs could have arisen in the case of both the sieidi and the rock paintings, as steep, high cliffs at water’s edge sometimes produce startling echoes and an ‘eerie’ atmosphere. This feature of Finnish rock paintings was first noted by the musicolo- gist Iégor Reznikoff (1995), who conducted some simple tests in an attempt to prove that echoing is an element that influences their location. In the light of Saami ethnography and the possible cross-cultural significance of echoing the idea clearly seems worth exploring.

Sacrifices at sieidi

When a Saami embarked on a hunting or fishing trip, he would first visit a sieidi, for example to promise to it something in return for the catch. In exchange for good hunting luck, the sieidi would be given small offerings. For example, fish sieidi were given fish heads or sometimes entire fish, and the rock was smeared with fish fat. Sieidi associated with domestic reindeer were promised reindeer antlers, skulls and bones. Entire animals were sometimes sacrificed to the wild reindeer sieidi, and afterwards the rock was smeared with the blood of the sacrificial reindeer. Hunters of other kinds of prey offered bones of a bear, wolf or wolverine, sometimes also birds and eggs (Paulaharju 1932: 10-11, Itkonen 1948: 318). The linguist Frans Äimä, who studied the Lake Inari Saami in Finnish Lapland, has given a most interesting description of their customs and beliefs related to the sieidi (Äimä 1903). He writes that

“Sacrificing” took place so that the meat and fish — the best quality available — were taken to a sacrificial site, where they were cooked and eaten. “The rationale was”, said one informant, “that the god is also fed when the sacrificers eat”. For this reason, “no matter how much people ate, they would always return hungry from the sacrificial site”. (Äimä 1903: 115, my translation)

Furthermore, certain sieidi were offered coins, brooches, arrow points and other small items, but these were usually given for some other reason than gaining hunting luck (Itkonen 1948: 318). Ernst Manker (1957, table 3) lists the types of material associated with Saami sacrificial sites as follows (in a decreasing order of frequency): reindeer antlers, reindeer bones, other mammalian bones (bear, dog, cat and domestic animals), fish and birds, tobacco and alcohol, tools, arrow points, metals (bronze, iron, tin, copper, silver), glass, textiles and some finds of flint, quartz and similar stone material. An interesting detail is the discovery of some pieces of prehistoric asbestos-tempered pottery in stratified contexts (Manker 1957: 50-51). Manker also mentions small, strangely-shaped ‘seite-stones’ as a characteristic find from Saami sacrificial sites. As an example, two such stones were found among silver coins, arrow points, jewellery and a layer of partially disintegrated reindeer antlers at the Early Medieval Saami sacrificial site of Rautasjaure — a rocky cliff on a lakeshore in Swedish Lapland, excavated by Gustaf Hallström in 1909 (Manker 1957: 134- 138). A rich oral tradition and fresh sacrifices of antlers were associated with the site still in Hallström’s time.

Manker’s list could be continued. But based on the historical sources and excavated sacred sites, the essential core of a “Saami sacrificial cult” — if such a generalization, covering all the various Saami groups, can be considered meaningful — would seem to consist of sacrificial meals, reindeer antlers, reindeer bones and fish heads or entrails. Most of the remaining categories seem rather peripheral, but two stand out as apparently having special significance: arrow points and prestige objects, including coins and jewellery, mainly dated between the 11th and 14th centuries AD (Zachrisson 1984).

Sacrifices at rock paintings?

Like the sieidi, the Finnish rock paintings appear to have been associated with a sacrificial cult. It would be tempting to associate the enigmatic red ochre blotches of Finnish rock art — which have clearly been painted on purpose but feature no recognisable images — with the Saami practice of smearing the sieidi with blood. However, less hypothetical parallels can be drawn based on the concrete material finds from sieidi and rock paintings. Only a few excavations have been conducted at Finnish rock paintings so far, and the number of finds is consequently small. Attributing all of them to a ‘sacrificial cult’ may appear questionable. But while it is true that finds made at rock art sites are not necessarily related to ‘cultic activities’, in Finland the find contexts (underwater or in boulder soils unsuitable for prolonged stay) and types of material found often suggest ritual. The sporadic character of the finds and the small number of excavations make it difficult to generalize or draw conclusions about its nature, but some interesting observations can be made. In particular, the discovery of bones, prestige objects, arrow points and signs of fire suggest a parallel with Saami sieidi.

Thus far, cervid bones have been found at two Finnish rock paintings. Two mammalian bones were found in underwater excavations at Astuvansalmi (Grönhagen 1994: 8). One is from a large, unidentified, non-human mammal (cervid?), the other a worked piece of wild reindeer antler. From the round part of the antler, once attached to the skull, it could be established that the antler was naturally dropped by the animal. Elk bones belonging to at least two individuals (ages 18-30 months) were found in a test pit made in shallow water in front of the Kotojärvi painting (Ojonen 1973, Fortelius 1980). One of the bones has been radiocarbon-dated to ca. 1300 cal. BC (Miettinen 2000: 85). Apart from elk bones, the site of Kotojärvi also yielded bird bones belonging to a common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula, at least two individuals) and wood- cock (Scolopax rusticola) (Mannermaa 2003: 6, appendix 3).

Sacrifices of silver, coins and other prestige material from Saami sites may find a parallel in the discovery of amber objects from Astuvansalmi. These were found from the same underwater pit as the bones mentioned 132 above. Three of the amber figurines are anthropomorphic in shape and have a small hole, suggesting that they were worn as pendants or sewn into clothing (Grönhagen 1994). The fourth figurine resembles the head of a bear.

Fig. 9. The anthropomorphic pebble found at the rock painting of Valkeisaari,
apparently originally placed inside a Textile Ware pot.
Drawing: Antti Lahelma.

Arrow points have been found at two sites, Astuvansalmi and Saraakallio. The two items found at Astuvansalmi were found in excavations conducted on dry land in front of the paintings (Sarvas 1969). One is a slate point belonging to the Late Neolithic, the other a broken quartz point of the Early Metal Period. The arrow point found at Saraakallio is similarly a fragment of an Early Metal Period straight-based point. Signs of fire have also been encountered at two sites, Kalamaniemi 2 and Valkeisaari, although the dating of the former remains uncertain. The latter, however, merits a separate discussion because it is so far the only site in Finland where a prehistoric cultural layer probably associated with a rock painting has been discovered.

The ‘sacrificial deposit’ of Valkeisaari

Some of the most interesting finds related to Finnish rock art have been found from a small island called Valkeisaari on Lake Saimaa. In 1966, Keijo Koistinen, an amateur archaeologist from Lappeenranta, discovered a rock painting from a lakeshore cliff on the island and proceeded to investigate its surroundings. At the foot of the painting he discovered a concentration of Early Metal Period pottery sherds (all belonging to a single Textile Ware pot, about a half of which was recovered), two flint flakes and a fragment of a flint object, all surrounded by a layer of sooty soil. Soot scraped from the pottery sherds was recently dated to 3100 ±50 BP (Hela-1127), or 1370 ±60 cal BC. The finds were made from under a large, flat slab located immediately in front of a rock painting. Among the sherds and sooty soil, he also found a small pebble (size 5.7×3.5×3.7 cm), which apparently had originally been placed inside the pot. The stone is rounded and smooth, but has three natural depressions that give it a vaguely face-like appearance (fig. 9). It is mentioned in the find report (Huurre 1966), but not in the article later written about the rock painting (Luho 1968) or any other subsequent publications. However, in the light of the above discussion on anthropomorphism — and given the fact that the stone was found in a closed archaeological context — it emerges as a very exceptional find. The Valkeisaari stone is probably as close as we will ever get to actual proof that anthropomorphism did indeed play a role in the beliefs associated with rock art. This conclusion is supported by the fact that also the painted cliff Valkeisaari is, as already mentioned, one of the more strikingly “face-like” cliffs associated with Finnish rock art (Taavitsainen 1981, fig. 4).

Fig. 4. The ‘three-dimensional’ stone man of Uutelanvuori (inside the white rectangle).
The drawing on the right shows the outlines of the rock formation and the painted marks on it
(red hues selected with Adobe PhotoShop from the photograph on the left).
Photo and drawing: Antti Lahelma

On account of the extraordinary finds made at Valkeisaari, a small excavation was arranged at the site in the summer of 2005 (Lahelma in press). Remains of a fireplace, sooty soil and charcoal were discovered in front of the rock painting, and a cultural layer some 30-50 cm thick was encountered in the entire 10 m² trench excavated. Macrofossils taken from the fireplace included a consider able number of carbonized seeds of berries and edible plants, including seeds of fat hen (Chenopodium album), a plant species alien to poor soils such as the ones found in Valkeisaari. Finds consisted mainly of quartz, with a few scattered pieces of pottery and burnt bone also found. Upon closer analysis (Manninen 2005), the quartz finds were found to differ clearly from typical dwelling site material. The most significant difference was that the share of broken or whole implements vs. flakes was very high (58,3%). This seems to indicate that quartz raw material was not worked at Valkeisaari. Instead, quartz tools were brought to the island and used to process some hard material, in the course of which some of the tools were broken and abandoned. Of the very few finds of burnt bone, only one fragment belonging to a capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) could be identified.

It seems difficult to associate the Valkeisaari finds with purely mundane activities. For one thing, the terrace where the finds were made is very narrow and — because it is littered with huge boulders — unsuitable for dwelling. The finds, moreover, differ markedly from typical material found at Early Metal Period dwelling sites and seem to indicate a specialized function for the site. Combined with the fact that the finds were made directly in front of a rock painting and an “anthropomorphic” cliff, it does not appear too fanciful to associate them with rituals. These rituals may have involved the preparation of food, as indicated by the fireplace, macrofossil remains and burnt bones. This suggests a comparison with the sacrificial meals arranged at the Saami sieidi (cf. fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Saami worshipping a stone sieidi (storjunkare) and consuming a sacrificial meal.
Note the anthropomorphic shape of the rock and the reindeer antlers in the foreground.
An engraving by Bernard Picart from Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde,
Amsterdam, 1723–37.
Photo: Finnish National Board of Antiquities.

Although perhaps the most interesting find of its kind, the Valkeisaari stone is not unique. A piece of sandstone with the rough appearance of a human head was found in the underwater excavations of Astuvansalmi (Grönhagen 1994). According to the excavator (Juhani Grönhagen pers. comm), the stone (size 4.2×3.2×3.9 cm) is mostly natural but seems to have been worked around the ‘neck’. A third interesting stone, best described as a ‘portable rock painting’, should also be mentioned here, even though it is not anthropomorphic in shape and was not found at a rock painting. The smooth, round granodiorite cobble (size 16×12×11 cm) was found in 1979 at the large Comb Ware dwelling site of Nästinristi in South-Western Finland, dated to ca. 3300-2600 BC (Väkeväinen 1982). The stone, which bears an abstract net-figure painted with red ochre, lay buried in sand at a depth of ca. 30 cm. No structures were associated with the stone, but red ochre graves were found at a distance of ca. 10 m from it. All three stones may be compared to the portable sieidi of the Saami — cultic items that could be carried on migrations from one dwelling site to another, or serve as the focal point of the cult at a sacred site.

The Finnish rock paintings in a wider perspective

Within the scope of this paper, it is not possible to present a proper discussion of parallels for Finnish rock paintings. It is important to point out, however, that the anthropomorphic shape, characteristic ‘sacrificial’ finds (arrow points, bones, signs of fire, etc.) and the location on steep cliffs at water’s edge are by no means unique to Finnish rock paintings. Similar sites can be found in parts of Northern Sweden, Norway and Russia — mainly, it seems, in areas once populated by the Saami or other Finno-Ugric peoples.

The closest parallels to the Finnish sites can be found in Swedish Norrland, where hunter-gatherer rock paintings depict elks, humans and geometric symbols in various combinations (Kivikäs 2003). Anders Fandén (2001:100-106), who interprets the paintings in the light of Saami religion, has presented a number of possible examples of anthropomorphic shapes at Swedish rock painting sites, including the paintings of Botilstenen, Trolltjärn, Hästskotjärn and Fångsjön. Two recently excavated sites, Flatruet and Högberget, have produced interesting information concerning the activities associated with rock paintings. Excavations conducted in 2003 at the painting of Flatruet yielded three even-based stone arrow points, dated to ca. 3000-4000 years ago (Hansson 2006). Radiocarbon dates from layers of charcoal at the site extended from 4000 BC to 1200 AD. Traces of fireplaces apparently associated with rock art were found also at Högberget, where radiocarbon dates taken from the charcoal associated with fireplaces range between 4300 and 1000 cal BC (Lindgren 2004: 30-31).

In Norway, Tore Slinning (2002: 130-131) has identified examples of anthropomorphism at some of the rock painting sites in Telemark. Archaeological material from the Norwegian painting sites includes the finds from the cave of Solsemhula, which was excavated in 1912-13 (Sognnes 1982). Finds made close to the cave paintings consisted of a large amount of shells, charcoal and bones, including fish,birds and mammals (even some belonging to human beings), and some artefacts such as a slate point, a bone point and a bird figure. The deposit is not necessarily related to rituals or rock paintings, but the finds do differ mark- edly from contemporary dwelling sites. The Solsemhula finds are dated to the transition between the Stone and Bronze Ages (Sognnes 1982: 111). More recently, small excavations conducted at the rock painting of Ruksesbákti in Finnmark have produced evidence of fires kept at the foot of the painting, as well as a number of lithic finds such as scrapers (Hebba Helberg 2004). Datings made from charcoal found at Ruksesbákti, like those at Flatruet, range from the Stone Age to the Medieval period.

Finally, even though they lie geographically far away from Finland, the rock paintings of the Ural mountains in Russia should be mentioned because of their phenomenological similarity to Finnish sites and an apparent Finno-Ugric connection (Chernechov 1964, 1971, Shirokov et al. 2000). Approximately seventy rock art sites are known from the banks of various rivers in the Urals, featuring red ochre paintings that mainly depict geometric forms, cervids, birds and human figures. Some excavations have been conducted at the paintings. Among the most interesting finds are those from the site of Pisanech, River Neyva, where bones of large animals (including elk and bear), six bone arrow points and a flint scraper were found, associated with layers of charcoal and ash (Shirokov et al. 2000: 7). Some of the Ural sites appear to be anthropomorphic in shape, although this aspect is not emphasised by the Russian scholars. The important painting of Dvuglaznyi Kamen, also on River Neyva, seems particularly interesting. Chernechov (1971: 25) notes that its name (“two-eyed rock”) probably derives from the shape of the rock, which features two small depressions resembling human eyes. A photograph of the site, with the ‘eyes’ clearly shown, is published in Shirokov et al. 2000 (fig. 10).


Even a superficial review of prehistoric art confirms Guthrie’s claim of the universality of anthropomorphism, as well as its deep roots in the history of human evolution. Indeed, some of the earliest known finds of paleoart feature examples of anthropomorphism. A reddish-brown jasperite cobble found in Makapansgat cave in South Africa in a layer associated with australopithecine remains bears natural markings that appear to form the eyes and mouth of a humanoid (Bednarik 2003: 97, fig. 22). The stone was carried to the cave of Makapansgat by an australopithecine or a very early hominid ca. 2-3 million years ago, probably because its finder was fascinated by the anthropomorphic shape of the stone. Although the Makapansgat cobble is by far the oldest such find, other similar objects also of considerable age have been found. A natural stone object found in Middle Auchelian layers in Tan-Tan (Morocco) is reminiscent of a human being in frontal posture, with a few groove markings that emphasize the resemblance (Bednarik 2003: 96, fig. 20). A somewhat similar find is known from another Auchelian site at Berekhat Ram (Israel), where a basaltic tuff pebble (dated between 233 000 and 470 000 BP) resembling a female torso was found (Bednarik 2003: 93, fig. 14). As with the ‘figurine’ of Tan-Tan, the anthropomorphic shape of the pebble has been artificially emphasized by hominids.

Much younger finds of Upper Palaeolithic cave art also feature several examples of anthropomorphism. One of the most striking features of Upper Palaeolithic cave art is the use of natural features in the rock, incorporating them as part of the images. Almost every European painted cave includes examples of this, and while the images thus conceived usually portray animals, anthropomorphic images are also present. For example, at the cave of Le Portel, a protuberance in the cave wall forms the penis of a human figure that has been sketched around the rock formation (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998: 86). More interesting from our point of view are rock formations that have been turned into anthropomorphs simply by the additions of painted eyes or other facial features. Famous examples of this are known from the cave of Altamira in Spain, where in one of the deepest passages visitors are confronted by two natural stone reliefs that have painted eyes. Similar ‘stone men’, sometimes referred to as ‘masks’ in the literature on cave art, are known from the caves of Gargas, Le Tuc-d’Audobert, and Les Trois-Frères (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998: 90-91).

Apart from paleoart, examples of anthropomorphism can be found in the most varied kinds of prehistoric material. To give just two examples, anthropomorphic elements are present in iron furnaces in parts of Africa (Barndon 2004) and in many different kinds of pottery, such as the famous Moche pots of pre-Hispanic Peru (Donnan 1978) or contemporary pottery made by the Mafa and Bulahay of Cameroon (David, Sterner & Gavua 1988). Given these and other occurrences of anthropomorphism in a prehistoric context, the phenomenon should be given serious consideration by archaeologists. For the understanding of Finnish rock art it certainly seems significant.

Reconsidering “animism”

As mentioned in the introduction, there appears to be a connection between anthropomorphism and animism. The case of human- like rocks is interesting in this respect, because the notion of human-like rocks that ‘behave’ in human-like ways is a religious phenomenon with an extremely wide geographical distribution. Rocks have been perceived to be alive by numerous peoples living on all continents, including the Saami, the Ojibwa of North America (Hallowell 1960) and the Nayaka of South India (Bird-David 1999), to mention but a few examples.

The French anthropologist Pascal Boyer (1998, 1999) argues that because certain elements of religious ideas repeat themselves cross-culturally — in ways that cannot be explained solely by diffusion, ecological, economical or similar factors — they must be based on elements of cognition shared by all humans. Religious phenomena cannot vary infinitely, but must adapt the general constraints of human cognition, which has evolved to solve specific problems related to our survival as a species. In Boyer’s view, religious ideas are borne out of observations of phenomena that run counter to our intuitive expectations concerning their ‘natural’ behaviour. For example, trees and stones that move in ways that imply agency violate our intuitive ontological categories. Anthropomorphic rocks, similarly, could be seen to constitute a violation of categories since we are (according to Guthrie 1993) biologically conditioned to attribute agency to such objects — and yet we can simultaneously recognise them as “mere stones”.

According to Boyer, humans have a tendency to group these kinds of “counterintuitive” phenomena into the domain of religion (Boyer 1999: 59). Boyer, moreover, maintains that beliefs based on such observations are adopted more easily and transmitted more effectively because they are more easily remembered. For example, the notion of stones that are alive and can be communicated with is attention-grabbing, but only against a background of expectations concerning the natural qualities and ‘behaviour’ of stones. It is attention-grabbing because we do not generally assume that stones are animate or that it would be possible to have meaningful discussions with them. However, personal experience to the contrary can convince us otherwise. Hallowell (1960: 25), for example, writes of the Ojibwa relation to stones that they “do not perceive stones, in general, as animate, any more than we do. The crucial test is experience. Is there any personal testimony available?” The Ojibwa asserted to Hallowell that some stones have been seen to move or manifest other animate properties. Therefore, some stones were thought to be alive — but not all.

The sieidi are a case in point, belonging as it were to two ontological categories: although made of stone, in many respects the sieidi were like human beings. They could, for example, sing, move on their own accord, laugh at an unlucky fisherman, or shout in a loud voice (Paulaharju 1932: 22, 27). If a sacrificial meal was arranged at a sieidi, the stone was thought to eat together with the sacrificers (Äimä 1903: 115). If a sieidi was offended, it could become angry or vengeful. Conversely, if it was not viewed as beneficial or acted in a harmful way, it could be punished or even killed by burning or otherwise breaking the stone. Sometimes a sieidi could manifest itself by assuming a human shape. Some sieidi even had families — groups of stones that were viewed as father, mother, son or daughter. To borrow a term used by Hallowell (1960), the sieidi were viewed as “other-than-human persons” — animate, human-like beings that could be communicated with.

These human-like aspects of the sieidi have in traditional research on Saami religion generally been attributed to animism (e.g. Karsten 1952, Manker 1957). Animism is a term that, like other ‘classic’ concepts of 19th century anthropology (such as shamanism, fetishism and totemism), has received somewhat differing definitions and a fair amount of bad press over time. Developed by the English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor in Primitive Culture (1871), the concept of animism has been used to denote the ‘earliest’ period of magico-religious thinking. Tylor defined animism as a belief that animals, plants and inanimate objects all had souls, and attributed this phenomenon to dream experiences where people commonly feel as if they existed independent of their bodies. For Tylor, animism represented ‘stone age religion’ which still survived among some of the ‘ruder tribes’ encountered by the British in places like Africa or South India. Until recently, the concept of animism has been out of favour in anthropological literature because of its liberal use in the past to brand different systems of belief as primitive superstition. In the past few years, several authors, including Nurit Bird-David (1999), Tim Ingold (2000), Vesa-Pekka Herva (2004) and Graham Harvey (2005), have shown renewed interest in animism. Their view of animism, however, differs significantly from the traditional definition. Indeed, Harvey (2005: xi) makes a strong distinction between what he calls the ‘old animism’, burdened by colonial and Cartesian underpinnings, and the ‘new animism’ of Hallowell, Bird-David and other contemporary scholars.

Rather than a simple, irrational superstition of attributing life to the lifeless, animism could be seen as a means of maintaining human-environment relations. This view of animism has been advanced particularly by Bird-David (1999), who rejects Guthrie’s theory of animism because it reduces animism into a simple mistake or a failed epistemology. Drawing on current approaches in environment and personhood theories, Bird-David proposes that we replace the more than century-old Tylorian concept of animism in favour of a more sophisticated understanding of animism as ‘relational epistemology’. This epistemology, she writes, “is about knowing the world by focusing primarily on relatedness, from a related point of view, within the shifting horizons of the related viewer” (Bird-David 1999: S69).

Within the objectivist paradigm informing previous attempts to resolve the “animism” problem, it is hard to make sense of people’s “talking with” things, or singing, dancing, or socializing in other ways for which “talking” is used here as a shorthand. [...] “Talking with” stands for attentiveness to variances and invariances in behavior and response of things in states of relatedness and for getting to know such things as they change through the vicissitudes over time of the engagement with them. To “talk with a tree” [...] is to perceive what it does as one acts towards it, being aware concurrently of changes in oneself and the tree. It is expecting a response and responding, growing into mutual responsiveness and, furthermore, possibly into mutual responsibility. (Bird-David 1999: S77)

The concept of relational epistemology certainly seems to describe the Saami attitude towards the sieidi fairly well. Stories told of the sieidi are replete with Saami who “talk with” the stones. Itkonen (1948: 318) provides an example: hunters of wild reindeer in Inari (Finnish Lapland) customarily inquired of the sieidi of Muddusjärvi what the best direction in which to hunt would be. The hunters named different places; if the stone moved, that would be the place to head for. In all respects, the Saami relationship with the sieidi can be described as a relationship or a contract based on mutual respect and responsibility. If either of them broke the contract, a punishment would follow.

Conclusions: rock painting sites as “stone persons”

The similarities between the Saami sieidi and Finnish rock paintings seem to go beyond mere coincidence. Both are apparently as sociated with a hunting and fishing economy, similar topographic features, a similar sacrificial cult and anthropomorphic shapes of rock — and their distributions overlap. Beliefs associated with them are therefore likely to coincide. Some of these similarities may be related to universals of human cognition, such as anthropomorphism and counter-intuitive phenomena, while others may indicate a ‘genetic’ connection between the two phenomena. Historical sources mention “Lapps” still living in parts of Central and Eastern Finland in the 16th century AD (Itkonen 1948), and both oral tradition and the occurrence of hundreds of Saami placenames in Southern and Central Finland (Aikio & Aikio 2003) strengthen the hypothesis that Saami groups have populated the Finnish rock art region until fairly recently. A wide temporal gap still exists between prehistoric rock art and the sieidi in Finland where, as noted, the youngest datings associated with rock art are from ca. 1300 cal BC. Elsewhere in Fennoscandia, however, the gap has narrowed considerably as a result of recent research: Medieval rock carvings associated with the Saami have been found in Swedish Lapland (Bayliss-Smith & Mulk 1999, 2001) and, as mentioned above, radiocarbon-dates from the paintings of Flatruet and Ruksesbákti extend all the way from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages. Having said that, the differences in location and shape between rock paintings and sieidi should warn us against thinking that the latter represent a simple ‘survival’ of the Stone Age beliefs associated with rock paintings.

Taken together, the evidence discussed above seems to indicate that the Finnish rock paintings were associated with an animistic system of beliefs. Unlike shamanism and totemism, animism is not a concept that has been widely employed in interpretations of rock art — perhaps because in its traditional sense it does not really explain very much. In lay use and even in much of scholarly literature, the term “animistic religion” means virtually nothing, but is commonly used as synonym for “religions that do not fit into any other category”. However, like shamanism, the concept of animism is an academic creation, and can be developed and redefined. The ‘new animism’ of Bird-David (1999) and Harvey (2005) — or animism as relational epistemology — arguably makes both the Saami sieidi and aspects of the Finnish rock paintings more approachable and easier to understand.

My aim is not to revive animism as an all-purpose, universal interpretation to hunter-gatherer rock art — a charge that has been made against some uses of ‘shamanism’ in rock art studies (see Francfort & Hamayon 2001). Nor is the aim to replace shamanistic interpretations of Finnish rock art with another “ism” derived from anthropological literature. Animism and shamanism do not contradict each other, and neither of them should be understood as “religions”, even though in popular literature they are sometimes presented as such.

The aim, however, is to demonstrate that in specific cases the concept of animism does appear to have much potential in rock art research. As I have attempted to argue in this paper, Finnish rock paintings are such a case, not least because of the anthropomorphic shapes and other similarities they share with Saami sieidi. Although anthropomorphic shape is probably only one of many reasons that have made a painted rock special, to us it is of special importance because — even without access to a living religious tradition — it allows us to identify a probable reason why certain painted cliffs may have been perceived as agents. Exceptional echoing, similarly, might reveal one reason for choosing a specific cliff and attributing animacy to it (Waller 2002). But in many other cases, the reasons — dreams, visions and strange incidents — will remain forever lost to us.

This interpretation of the painted cliffs as “persons” is very different from the traditional view of the rock as a passive medium for artistic expression or passing information. Not only does the site of the paintings appear to reflect cosmological symbolism (Lahelma 2005), it may have been viewed as alive, conscious of one’s actions towards it, and powerful. The rock may have been “talked with” and viewed as a potent actor in questions of subsistence and other important issues. Material evidence for such beliefs is provided, most importantly, by the finds associated with the Valkeisaari painting discussed above. In the light Saami ethnography, the anthropomorphic cliff of Valkeisaari — and probably a number of other similar cliffs as well — can be interpreted as a living “stone person” (keäd’ge-olmuš) who, like the sieidi, may have been thought to participate in sacrificial meals. The small anthropomorphic stone found among pottery sherds may be related to the same idea of sharing food with the god. Like similar, strangely-shaped stones sometimes found at Saami sacred sites, the Valkeisaari stone could have represented a concentration of the supernatural power of the site. It may have functioned as the focus of worship and sacrifices — a miniature ‘representative’ of the site as a whole. Perhaps this is why the stone was found inside a ceramic vessel probably used for serving food.

Both the making of rock paintings and the sacrifices apparently made in front of them can be seen as material expressions of ritual communication between humans and the environment. This communication can be interpreted as reflecting the principles of reciprocity and equality with nature, fundamental to the forager way of life. The words of Inga-Maria Mulk (1994: 123), describing the Saami attitude towards sacred sites, would seem to apply to rock painting sites also:

Offering natural products to the powers of nature may be seen as a symbolic act of giving back nature’s gifts. [...] On an ideological level, such acts will enforce the idea of humans being part of nature, contrary to the idea that their task on earth is to conquer and subordinate nature.


Several people have offered helpful comments, made corrections and suggested improvements on a draft of this paper. I am grateful especially to Knut Helskog, Håkan Rydving, Risto Pulk- kinen and Vesa-Pekka Herva. Petri Halinen, Kristiina Mannermaa and other members of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Helsinki are also to be thanked for interest, good-natured criticism and support. I have received financial support from the Finnish Cultural Foundation. The idea of using the “Face on Mars” to illustrate anthropomorphism is, of course, taken from the front cover of Guthrie’s book.


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