The Space and Landscapes in Karelian Prehistoric Rock Art

The Space and Landscapes in Karelian Prehistoric Rock Art

Contemporary petroglyph study has hardly researched the subject up to now.

Ancient rock art is suggested to be unable to depict the space due to special surfaces the images were made on and hieratic nature of the latter. The ancient images are characterized by lack of perspective. The images themselves are one dimensional, static and not very varied.

All that is typical of a great number of that kind of monuments found in Eurasia, which is rightly so indeed.

Nevertheless, there are some exclusions such as Alt (Northern Norway) (Helskug, 2001) or Karelian rock art monuments although such exclusions are definitely very rare.

Neolithic rock art images found in some areas around the White Sea and Lake Onega are famous all over the world. The images are unique as they are characterized by some attempts of ancient people to depict the landscape as well as people and animals in motion (Savvateev, 1970? 2006; Lobanova, 2005; Georgievsky, Lobanova, 2012).

V.I.Ravdonikas who discovered Staraya Zalavruga petroglyphs pointed out to an interesting feature of some anthropomorphic characters. The researcher suggested that while engraving the images an ancient artist tried to conquer the tradition of one dimension art and put some body mobility and expression into the images (Ravdonikas, 1938, p.22-23).

For example, in the skiers’ profile figures engraved on the north-eastern slop of the central rock one can see some plastic arm movement. The skiers’ corpora are turned the way that make them similar to ancient Egyptian images (pic.1).

The image of the prehistoric “thinker” is extremely expressional as well. It is a profile image of a man whose body is turned to us. He has two legs, which is not typical of prehistoric art, and he is touching his forehead with his hand (pic.2).

The unique pictures one can see on the slopes of Karelian rocks were made by hunters, fishermen and gatherers who lived there more than 6500 years ago. Those communities were part of the environment. People believed that they shared it with some ghosts and other supernatural beings and communicated with them.

Apparently, ancient people considered the landscape about them to be animate. At that time, society and nature were believed to be inextricably connected. Petroglyphic holly places used to appear at the places supposed to have some ritual importance and sacral meaning.

Definitely, firm granite and bastard granite capes and islands on the eastern side of Lake Onega and of the Vyg River lower reaches had that status.

Ancient artists found the character of the rock surface, its slopes, color, configuration and the existence of foreign massive materials extremely important. They chose places to make their compositions and single figures very carefully.

Sometimes the rock surface itself as part of the landscape was perfectly suitable for engraving when it had some fissures, glacial scratches, bilges and cavitation (pic.3).

Occasionally, an ancient artist made his images on the parts of rock having another color due to some foreign inclusions (pic. 4-5).

All the prominences such as mountains or hills, egg holes such as lakes or cavities might have been an entrance to the lower world.

In the area of Novaya Zalavruga (the Vyg River lower reach) there are some rocks with small lobes. They are almost always filled with water, which make them look like tiny lakes (pic.6). It is not by chance that none of them have any figures.

The images on the rocks found in some areas around Lake Onega and the Vyg River lower reaches were made with quarts hammer stones. Both areas have the images made with the same technique called picketage.

Their depth is 1-3 mm and the images are characterized by careful engraving and clear outline. It is these features that make a famous composition belonging to group IV in Novaya Zalavruga absolutely unique.

The image depicts winter moose hunting. There are three hunters on skis going up the hill and then hitting it (pic.7). One can understand that clearly looking at the ski-track. It looks like either as a line or a striped line. One can see ski-stick tracks. The scene proves that the rock surface itself is involved into the landscape formation. The people start their way at the highest point of the rock and then go down to the low points.

There is another image next to that one. One can see 12 people in a boat. They are hunting a huge sea animal called the white whale (pic.8).

The ancient artist managed to depict the most important moment of the hunt. The harpoon has just sunk into the beast’s body and the harpoon thong has zig-zag configuration as there was not enough time for the thorn to get straight.

Isn’t that tiny detail full of dynamism and emotions! Another famous group (VIII) has an image with the scene with people sitting in six boats hunting a huge white whale (pic.9). One can see a tiny image of a calf next to the massive sea animal. Both figures are of the same character. In addition to great skill put into the image, it is indicative that the sea animals were engraved at the place where a streamlet is formed after raining. It rises from a puddle located a bit higher than the image itself is.

A figure of a moose calf engraved next to a small rocky recess filling with water after raining demonstrates the similar approach to making images. After the recess fills with water the moose calf’s face turns to be at the rim of the puddle and the young animal seems to be drinking water from it.

Another Zalavruga’s composition in group XV is absolutely unique. It is the only North European image having a river with its arm, bend and islands in it (pic.10). One can see some boats sailing down the river. We do not know whether it is a real river or a mythological one. We cannot find that part of the engraved river in the contemporary landscape of the Vyg River estuary. There are some other images in group XV which might have appeared at some other time.  They are not relevant to the river. One can see some images of birds, people with bows and with no armament, people sitting in boats and hunting a whale.

Favorable sunlight and its reflection on the water surface make a lot of rock art images dimensional and even make us believe that we can watch some motion.

Ethnographer K.D.Laushkin, who studied petroglyphs found in some areas around Lake Onega for several years, once discovered an amazing animation effect. While the last rays of the          setting sun were lying on the slope of the Peri Nos cape one of the images came alive. The ethnographer wrote an article called “The cinema 40 ages ago” which was published in the “Znaniye-Sila” magazine (Laushkin, 1966). Unfortunately, we have not had a chance to witness that optical effect despite our long-term observations. That amazing effect might have been just a fantasy of the sensitive Leningrad ethnographer.

Therefore, it can be suggested that an ancient artist starting the engraving process already had some image of sacral landscape in his mind and brilliantly depicted its elements on the rock surface making allowance for its natural particularities.

It is entirely possible that our contemporaries see the rock art images presenting ancient landscapes and scenes in some other way the author and his audience, taking part in ancient rituals, did. However, we are able to understand what they were thinking about and what they felt at that moment.  We are capable of sharing their feelings and we can enjoy the skill of ancient artists who managed to create that undying and really expressive “stone book".

List of References

Georgievsky I.Yu., Lobanova N.V. Kamennaya kniga Severa. – Petrozavodsk, 2012.

Laushkin K.D. Kino sorok vekov nazad // Znaniye – sila. – 1966. - №1.

Lobanova N.V.  Tainy petrogliphov Karelii. – Petrozavodsk, 2005.

Ravdonikas V.I. Naskalnyie izobrazheniya Onezhskogo ozera. – M. – L., 1936.

Ravdonikas V.I. Naskalnyie izobrazheniya Belogo moray. – M. – L., 1938.

Savvateev Yu.A. Zalavruga. – M. – L., 1970.

Savvateev Yu.A. Vechniye pismena. – Petrozavodsk, 2006.

Helskug K. Sledy, povestvovaniya i landshafty v naskalnom iskusstve severa // Arkheologiya v puti ili put’ arheologa. Chast 2. Sankt-Peterburg, 201. P. 64-87