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The Tumlehed Rock painting

Tumlehed Rock Painting: A Cultural Map of Symbolic Language


It is widely accepted that art represents language in the form of imagery whether placed on a canvas or onto the surface of a rock. Language is different to speech in that a symbol or physical gesture may be understood even when spoken words may not.  

Certain artistic motifs may change in status, meaning, and importance due to social, political or economic influence over time. In Northern Scandinavia between the late Mesolithic/ Neolithic periods and Early Bronze Age, changes in style and subject matter can be seen - such as from hunting and fishing scenes to farming, warrior and boat themes. 

Rock paintings and carvings were not completed in one sitting and additions would have be made over long periods of time (seasonally or annually.) The painters could change, add to, and cover up previous designs whereas rock carvings are a more permanent statement. Yet, even they can be altered.

The Tumlehed panel, discovered near Gothenburg, Sweden in 1974, appears to depict both Mesolithic/ Neolithic and Early Bronze Age styles, dating back about 5,000 years. It is considered authentic due to the testing done on pigment penetration of the rock surface, lichen growth over some of the images, as well as pigment weathering.

The colors range from reds and oranges to brown and the images depicted are: one large red deer, five fish, four boats, six horizontal wavy lines and a single stylized ‘stick-figure’ as well as a net design incorporated into the antlers of the deer.

Were Offerings Made To Appease Nature?

The red deer is approximately 23 inches high and is the most realistic of those found in the geographical area as all four legs are rendered and the body is in proportion. Usually rock-art animals are drawn side-on with only two legs.

The four boats, all of the same size and style, resemble the earliest carved-boat phase of the Bronze Age with vertical lines possibly representing the crew. The fish are thought to be either salmon or marine mammals. Similar designs of fish have been found in northern Scandinavia while the wavy lines are unique to Tumlehed.

Close-up of Nanforsens rock painting, Naesaaker Sweden

Close-up of Nanforsens rock painting, Naesaaker Sweden (Jojoo64/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Dating the rock painting has not been easy as there are possible later additions. The net and boat (Early Bronze Age) may have been added to the antlers of the red deer which is the largest and arguably the earliest design on the panel.

The rock on which the panel is painted is now located in a dry fjord with the shorelines 1.2 miles to the west and it sits 82 feet above sea level. This particular fjord has undergone a number of geomorphological changes in the past 8,000 years and during the Neolithic/ Bronze Age, it would have been flooded, possibly to a point just below the site. Larsson (University of Lund, Sweden) proposed that decorated objects were deliberately placed in or near water, perhaps as a measure to balance environmental instability.

Another theory suggests that rock panels may have acted as markers on paths along which animals were escorted, but because the rock at Tumlehed would not have been easily accessible at the time it was painted, it’s possible that this site was only visited during special events in the hunting calendar and that the audience was restricted to particular hunters. The viewing may well have been part of a ceremony. 

Symbolism And Duality In Rock-art

Socio-economic concepts such as governing the landscapes and its resources were portrayed more often during the Bronze Age than before, and rock-art often depicts this theme. For example, herding animals such as reindeer, were placed in the center with humans and other geometrical designs placed to the side – encircling and directing the animals.

Rock painting from Tumlehed

Rock painting from Tumlehed (Nash 2002/ ResearchGate)

Professor Nash, an archaeologist with extensive experience in prehistoric rock-art, has researched the binary and dual symbolism. The six wavy lines, five fish, and four boats are clustered to the left while the deer and the net are on the right. They are divided by a natural fissure which was most likely present when the panel was painted and separates marine from terrestrial. All animals face inland and the placement of the items seems deliberate. The spatial arrangement of each component could have informed fellow tribe members where the resources were to be found.

The Tumlehed panel possesses a series of binary oppositions which in some way promote harmony, but also a number of contradictions such as the marine / terrestrial images. Deer, fish and boats represent hunter-gatherer-fisher economy, but also represent wildlife. The person accompanying the boats, which was placed at the top of the panel, represents man dominating nature.

Within most tribal societies, different individuals may have been in charge of each step in the design process, such as choosing the right panel, preparing the surface, and applying the paint or carving into the surface, with each task considered important.  

Like any language, symbols need to be understood in order to gain maximum information and rock-art is a type of cultural map using a unique language of symbols which can be universally read or restricted to a certain number of people.

Top Image: The Tumlehed Rock painting                               Source: Achird / CC BY-SA 3.0

By Michelle Freson


Chippindale, C. Nash, GH. 2001. European Landscapes in Rock-art. Routledge

Available at: Amazon

Fuglestvedt, I. 2017. Rock Art and the Wild Mind: Visual Imagery in Mesolithic Northern Europe. Routledge

Available at:  Amazon

Mansrud, A. Untangling Social, Ritual and Cosmological Aspects of Fishhook Manufacture in the Middle Mesolithic Coastal Communities of NE Skagerrak.

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Michelle Freson is a professional writer and editor and has spent many hundreds of wonderful hours working with and learning from fiction writers based all over the globe.

Born in July, 1971, Michelle has long since stopped working out her... Read More

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