The eternal monuments

“The Sever” Magazine February, 1999

Yuriy Savvateev


(On the occasion of centenary of the discovery of Karelian petroglyphs)

Background Information

The study of Onega and Belomorsk petroglyphs can be divided into four stages. Each of them has its own milestones, significant events, facts and names.

The first stage covers the period from 1848 to 1926. The latter was the year when A.M.Linevskij discovered the Besovy (Chertovy) Sledky in the lower reach of the Vyg River not far from the village of Vygostrov. During that period some sketches and notes made by K.I.Grevingk and P.G.Shved were the main sources of information on the petroglyphs.

G.Spasskij (1857) used them to compare Sibirian and Olonets (or “Great Russian”) engravings. P.Semenov made reference to them in his  “Geography and Statistic Dictionary of the Russian Empire” (V.1, 1862). Yu.A.Aspelin set a copy by K.Grevingk into a famous edition called “The Atlas of Finno-Ugric Antiquities” (1877).

Nevertheless, it took the Onega petroglyphs some time to become widely known. It is curiously enough that ethnographer N.Haruzin, who visited Pudozhsky region in the summer of 1887, did not mention them in his works at all. He collected various materials on ancient ceremonies and beliefs including the vestiges of the Bird Cult. At the same time, he paid no attention to those petroglyphs that had some very          expressive birds’ images. N.Haruzin was sorry about the fact that the Pudozhsky region remained the less studied area in the Olonetsky Province and scientists were not interested in it.


A year before an academician to-be, who became one of the most famous philologists and Russian Culture historian, A.A.Shackmatov visited the Pudozhsky Region. He had hardly ever heard of those rock art monuments either. Even E.V.Barsov (1836-1917), a collector and expert in folklore and ancient writings, the author of a three-volume book “The North Lamentations” showed no interest to the Onega petroglyphs.

According to some information, he visited the village of Besov Nos several times. Therefore, he could not have been unaware of those engravings the neighboring picturesque caps had. In the article called “On the Olonets Antiquities” E.V.Barsov only gave a summary of the essay written by P.G.Shved.

This said proves the Olonets engravings were not well-known at that time and their scientific and scientists did not realize their educational value yet. Anyway, the petroglyphs did not fall into oblivion. In 1880, Olonets Governor G.G.Grigoryev took first photos of the images during his hydrographic expedition along the eastern lakeside of the Onega on board the ship “Ladoga”.

Foreign specialists mostly deal with the materials when they do some research work.  A.B.Bregger set the sketch by Grevingk into his monograph on Arctic antiquities as well. A Swedish archeologist G.Halstrem (1880-1949) tried to study the Onega petroglyphs as carefully as possible on his own. He visited Besov Nos twice. He visited His first visit was in 1910 and his second visit was in 1914. During his second visit to the place he was accompanied by M.Birkit who came from England and B.Shnitter who came from Stockholm. The second visit was over sooner that it had been expected. The reason for that was The First World War. Nevertheless, the researches managed to copy 7 groups of petroglyphs (having 25 subgroups) which included 412 characters. The researches succeeded in taking very clear photos of the images.

Only a small number of copies by G.Halstrem were published and it had taken some time to be done.  M.Birkit was the first to publish them in his book and then, much later, G.Halstrem published the photos.

The second stage of the petroglyphs’ research started since the discovery of their first group in Belomorie by A.M.Linevskij. He called them the Besovy Sledky  by association with Besov Nos. They drew the scientists’ interest to the Onega engravings again and in the summer of the same 1926 F.M.Morozov who worked at the Hermitage looked at the images professionally. He made an emphasis on the petroglyphs’ awful condition, sounded the alarm and addressed various authorities in order to call for the preservation of those rock art monuments. Unfortunately, his voice was not heard. As a famous Russian archeologist A.A.Spitsin (1858-1931) put it, “there was neither a researcher nor funds to study the petroglyphs”. Then he added that “no one was interested in that poor and difficult to understand material”. That was the reason why he really appreciated the discovery made by A.M.Linevskij.  According to A.A.Spitsin, it revived interest in Karelian engravings. The first article by A.M.Linevskij was really detailed and A.A.Spitsin pointed out to the fact that “it was new and  extremely interesting information added to the science of Eastern Europe antiquities”.  Another Russian archeology luminary V.A.Gorodtsov (1860-1945) became interested in A.M.Linevskiy work as well. Later they had a face-to-face meeting in Moscow.

A Moscow archeologist A.Ya.Brusov (1885-1966) the author of the book called “The History of Ancient Karelia” (M., 1940) also joined in the study of the Karelian petroglyphs.

A.M.Linevskij achieved great result in his work. He published two monographs called “Karelian Petroglyphs” (P., 1939) and “The Sketches on the History of Ancient Karelia” (P., 1940) that illustrated his own approach to the explanation of the images. A.M.Linevskij wrote a book called “The Stone Book Pages” where he managed to set petroglyphs into a piece of literature. The book has been republished in large circulation several times.

Works by V.I.Ravdonikas are considered to be extremely important. The Svir hydro-electric power station was under construction at that time and he was worried about the Onega petroglyphs. He looked at the engravings in 1934 and decided that they had to be studied more carefully. The next year he started to study the Onega and later, in 1936, the Belomorsk petroglyphs, fixing all the information on them.  He was really lucky to discover a great number of characters and their groups in both areas. A group of a great number of expressive images in Zalavruga turned out to be the main discovery. They were discovered just 1.5 km away from the Besovy Sledky images found on another island located in the river bed of the Vyg River. All the characters were copied and published quickly enough. They were presented in a two volume luxurious book with a detailed synopsis in the French language. That edition available both for Russian and foreign readers introduced the Karelian petroglyphs into the scientific field, which became a true breakthrough. V.I.Ravdonikas suggested his own concept of the images explanation that started a long-standing discussion between him and A.M.Linevskij.

Some museums were worried about the petroglyphs as well. Yet in 1928 a small size sheet containing some engravings was taken from Pery-Nos to Petrozavodsk to be kept at the Karelian State Museum of Local Lore. In 1935, another sheet along with several smaller fragments from the same rock surface, which was bigger and had more characters, was taken to the Hermitage. Those new museum exhibits made the museums’ collections richer but at the same time made the Onega petroglyph complex less interesting. That way of saving the antique images suggesting the option of the removal of some rock fragments from their natural places cannot be considered appropriate. It was found more important  to take  effective measures in order to preserve the images right at the place of their location.

To that end, the Council of Ministers of Karelia adopted a regulation on the development of a State Nature Conservation Zone in the areas of Besov Nos and Pery Nos to preserve ancient monuments of rock art. At different times The State Nature Conservation Zone was under the jurisdiction of different institutions but unfortunately it never became a true nature conservation zone despite the fact that the lines of the zone had been drawn out and the manned guarding had been introduced.

In connection with the war and postwar difficulties there was no great interest in the Karelian petroglyphs. In the 50es a Leningrad ethnographer, who was a V.I.Ravdonikas’s student, K.D.Laushkin studied them. He tried to develop his teacher’s approach to the explanation of the petroglyphs giving a more detailed description of the petroglyph images and their scenes on the basis of the “Kalevala”. His interesting ideas proved the need for a more careful and detailed analysis of the images, for the right usage of the information provided by other fields of science and for the development of probability criteria for the explanation of the characters.

It became obvious that more careful and follow-through field work was necessary. The construction of the Vyg hydro-electric power station cascades in the lower reach of the Vyg River brought the work forward. The reason for that was the fact that the the Vyg HPP was being built just in the area where the petroglyphs and ancient encampments had been found. The archaeology fieldwork and excavation of the monuments that were in danger of destruction and flooding were carried out. Some measures to protect the petroglyphs were taken. During the excavation in the area of Zalavruga I^ discovered by A.Ya.Brusov yet in 1947 and damaged by a sand quarry developed by the construction workers a great number of petroglyphs were found. Unexpectedly, they had remained undamaged under the ancient cultural layer. They discovered 24 petroglyph groups containing more than 1000 images. Some of them were in perfect condition and had the scenes mainly depicting deep sea fishing and hunting.

In the 1970-1980es similar complex activity in the area of the eastern side of the Onega Lake was carried out. It included the search of the images, making records on them, fieldwork and excavation of ancient settlements, and the study of the environment development process.

Some new petroglyphs both in their groups found before and on the neighboring islands in the mouth of the Vodla River were discovered.

They turned out to stretch about 20 kilometers along the lakeside. On the whole, 23 petroglyph groups were identified. They contained more than 1000 images. In addition, more than 30 ancient encampments of different ages were discovered not far from the found images.

Ancient people had stayed at some of them long before the petroglyphs appeared in the area and they belong to the period known as Mesolithic one.  The others are dated approximately by the time when the petroglyphs were made and another group of ancient encampments appeared after ancient people had stopped to turn to the images for religious purposes in their daily life. It was the first experience when scientists managed to follow the environment development over a span of 10 thousand years.  

Unfortunately, stage three with the longstanding complex systematic research work did not reach its rightful consummation. Only a small part of the material, which was extremely rich and diverse, was published. Those publications mainly included materials on the Belomorsk petroglyphs and on ancient encampments.

Some palaeographic works by E.I.Devyatova were published as well.

At the same time, all the materials referring to the study of the Onega petroglyphs and records on them, including the materials on the excavation carried out at the sites of the former ancient encampments, still remain unpublished.

The contemporary stage, known as stage four, started in the late 1980es and has been in process up to now.

It is characterized by active engagement of foreign researchers into the process.  Along with that, Moscow and Saint-Petersburg experts in the field of science keep their interest to the rock art monuments.

It was mentioned above that foreigners had no opportunity to look at Karelian petroglyphs before. The only exclusion was made for French professor Nuzhje in 1968.

Nevertheless, he only had a chance to look at the Onega petroglyphs. At that time the Estonian “Association for the Study of Prehistoric Art” started by V.Poikalainen carried out important research work.

Yet in the Soviet times he began longtime fieldwork in order to make the inventory of all the found images. During that fieldwork some new characters belonging to the petroglyph groups found before were discovered. The discovery of a new petroglyph group on the Kochkov-Navolok peninsula located in the mouse of the Vodla River became a true breakthrough in the study of ancient rock art. The copies of the discovered images were displayed at various exhibitions both in our country and abroad. That stirred up the interest to them both from the side of experts and common people interested in antiquities. A lot of foreign tourists visited the exhibitions as well.

The publication of the copies of the petroglyphs found in the mouth of the Vodla River was one of the main outcomes of the research work (1998).

A number of articles and reports on Karelian petroglyphs have been published in some foreign magazines and journals. Seminars and symposiums on the Karelian rock art monuments are held. As a result of that, a lot of people want to see the rock art monuments with their own eyes.

When they take that chance they can clearly realize all the problems which need solution. They are such problems as the preservation, further study, and sound management of the monuments.

All the problems are closely intertwined and require the implementation of instant action framework.