Latvia’s Enigmatic Virtaka Cliff and Mysterious Gauja River Petroglyphs
Petroglyphs, cave paintings , and different rock carvings are some of the earliest forms of expression of early man. In the Baltic, Pomeranian, and Scandinavian regions of Europe, petroglyphs have been utilized for various purposes for thousands of years in the lives of its inhabitants. Popular in the Paleolithic, Neolithic, and well into the Bronze and even Iron Age, petroglyphs became a unique heritage of Europe. Today we will examine one of the most intricate and intriguing petroglyph examples in the Baltic region, known as the Virtaka Cliff in Latvia.
But what are petroglyphs? Petroglyphs are elaborate incisions in prominent rocks, boulders, and cliff walls that served a religious or similar purpose for the various cultures and tribes that lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They often depicted mythical creatures or the hunting of game. All the various symbols are still a subject of a lot of study to decipher and understand their purpose and meaning.
The Virtaka Cliff petroglyphs are located on sandstone cliffs along the Gauja River Basin in Latvia. (BirdsEyeLV / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Belated Discovery of the Virtaka Cliff
The Krimulda parish and municipality is located close to the shores of the Baltic Sea in Latvia. This is the home of the Virtaka Cliff, a remote sandstone cliff that boasts a dense grouping of petroglyphs, one of the richest such collections of markings in the whole Baltic region. Latvia is the second largest of the three Baltic nations, and boasts a rich and lengthy history, seeped in the traditions and heritage of the Balts, and the Virtaka Cliff is a crucial insight into its oldest historical periods.
As it is situated in the so-called East European Plain, prominent rock outcrops and rock faces are somewhat of a rarity across the nation. Nevertheless, certain regions of Latvia still have suitable rocky canvases that the ancient peoples discovered and utilized for their enigmatic expressions. The Gauja River Basin is a critical example of this. The only truly Latvian river - emerging and ending entirely in Latvia – it carved out a deep river valley, with steep red rock cliffs all around its banks – a perfect canvas for some petroglyphs!
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Natural caves are also in abundance in the region, many of them showing signs of ancient habitation. Many have been studied extensively and classed as sacred caves. There are roughly fifty of these in Latvia today. These are all important aspects of northeast European ancient cultures. But what is interesting is their geological background. These caves are formed through the same geological process as were the many cliffs in Latvia. Formed from sandstone, and relatively easy to work, they often show ancient carvings and symbols.
Sadly, visitors, travelers, wanderers, and tourists often exploited the softness of the sandstone by carving their names or goofy messages in the walls they chanced upon. Many of the ancient cliff faces and sacred caves have been thus defiled by “modern” writings. The rock faces of the popular Gutman Ala or Gutman’s cave have been extensively studied, but are also filled with tourist writings. The earliest of these dates to 1521!
The first discovery made by prominent cave researcher, Guntis Eniņš, was of mysterious carvings on the walls of the Lībiešu Upurala cave in 1971. (J. Sedols / CC BY 3.0 )
Providing Insight into Distant Baltic History?
The very first ancient rock carvings in Latvia were discovered surprisingly recently. With centuries of outside interference and occupation from major regional powers, Latvia received its independence truly and formally around 1991. These occupations and internal struggles probably also influenced its scholarly world, limiting the extent of the archaeological studies until later decades of the 20th century.
In 1971, Latvia’s petroglyphs and rock carvings were discovered in earnest by a prominent cave researcher, Guntis Eniņš. His earliest discoveries were made in the Lībiešu Upurala cave. He discovered ritual remains in the cave, which were also corresponding to the mysterious carving on its walls. His next major discovery was made in 1986, on the face of the so-called Virtaka Rock. This prominent sandstone cliff face is located on the banks of the River Brasla.
The Virtaka Rock is one of the most stunning, primeval rivers of the Baltic region, with wild nature within its rugged valleys, and a truly heathenish ambience to it. The Virtaka Cliff is situated on its right bank, and its height is between 10 to 15 meters (32-50 feet), and length is roughly a 100 meters (~329 feet). At its base, secluded from sight, is a small niche cave, with a ceiling height of 2.5 meters (8.2 feet).
Upon close inspection, Guntis Eniņš was astounded by the majestic discovery he had made. The face of the sandstone cliff was covered with an intricate and dense grouping of ancient petroglyphs, covering a surface of 2 by 3.5 meters (6.5 by 11 feet). It was at once certain that this grouping of carvings was by far the largest and most significant such discovery in Latvia up to that point, and it made a big echo in the archaeological and historical scientific circles.
Discovered in 1986, the Virtaka Cliff petroglyphs in Latvia. (Guntis Eniņš/ Folklore)
The carvings on Virtaka Cliff are very dense and very numerous, perhaps indicating a long period of “worship” or use by ancient inhabitants of the region. While the meaning, the role, and the symbolism behind the carvings remains largely a subject of debate, we can nevertheless spot some of the widely used symbols of the ancient times.
Some of them are various basic symbols used throughout Europe in the neolithic and the later ages, such as swastikas, sun crosses, circles, zig-zag lines, animal shapes and human shaped motifs. Important to note are the use of swastikas - which are ancient symbols of the sun in Old European cultures and civilizations. Some of them are arrayed in combined groups of four, while others are solitary. Sun crosses and similar shapes are also very old and very widespread in Ancient Europe.
The petroglyph carvings on Virtaka Cliff are very dense and numerous and were discovered in 1986 by Guntis Eniņš. ( Poweroaklatvia)
Collective Heritage of Balto-Slavs
But more important to note are several symbols that are very recognizable in the later Balto-Slavic cultures. Many of them are best described as angular geometric symbols, and as such they are commonly observed in later Baltic andSlavic (Balto-Slavs diverged into these two distinct cultural groups) embroidery, carvings, and religious symbolism. The Hands of God (Slavic: Ręce Boga ) are one such symbol on the Virtaka Cliff, as are the numerous linear triangular formations that are identified as Slavic symbols of fertility, the tree of life, or the Sun.
As such, Virtaka Cliff could be an important indication into the traces of earliest Balto-Slavic cultural groups in the region, a remnant of the crucial amalgamation of the Proto and Indo Europeans. Alas, archaeological excavations at the foot of the cliff yielded no considerable finds that could help determine the age or the extent of its use in history. The uncertainty of the age of the carvings led to a lot of scholarly debate and a concentrated effort that could determine their age with certainty.
Eniņš, with the help of a prominent Latvian geologist, Vilma Venska, deduced that the carvings are between 500 and 1000 years old at most. This could place them into a time period of “late” Early Medieval Period, when some of Europe’s last pagans still held to their fate in the Baltic and Pomeranian region. As such, this dating by Eniņš does make sense. However, it could be even older than this.
Several key Latvian scholars offered their interpretations of these carvings, most of them largely agreeing as to their origins. However, it is the age that is subject to debate. The influential linguist Konstantīns Karulis offered his suggestion in 1988, saying that the Virtaka Cliff petroglyphs are motifs left behind by the early Balts, corresponding to their mythology and ancient world view. Several world tree symbols are clear suggestions of this.
The date the Virtaka cliff petroglyph were created has been a subject of debate. ( traveleranita)
But, surprisingly, Karulis somewhat shockingly suggested that the age of the carvings was no older than 200-300 yeas, which seems to be an almost impossible suggestion. Most other scholars across Latvia and Europe agree that the carvings are quite archaic, with a millennium of age being the lowest possibility. They also agree that these carvings can be easily connected to the Proto Indo-European symbolism and world view as it was commonly depicted through similar motifs thousands of years ago.
Guntis Eniņš devoted his efforts to further research and went on to discover several similar places in Latvia, especially in the Gauja River basin and Gauja National Park. In 1987, merely 50 meters (~165 feet) from the Virtaka Cliff, Eniņš discovered another smaller group of rock carvings. These were much simpler, consisting mainly of groups of vertical lines arranged in groups of nine. Eniņš deduced that it was a form of an ancient lunar calendar, and thus named this new site Kalendāra klints (Calendar Rock).
After this flurry of activity, interest in Virtaka Cliff quickly subsided after that - mainly due to inability for scholars to agree on its age. Meanwhile enthusiasts kept up their devoted explorations. Eniņš was at the head of a group of amateur explorers, and they went on to make several important discoveries. Some other local historians also made discoveries in this region, such as Ansis Opmanis, Imants Jurģītis, and Sarmīte Ansberga.
The inspector of the Gauja National Park also discovered petroglyphs in his rounds. Guntis Eniņš conducted thorough cleaning and excavations at these sites, notably at Krusti Rock and Režģi Rock, copying the petroglyphs for preservation. However, it is interesting to not that Eniņš refrained from publicly announcing the exact locations of these new petroglyphs, in order to protect them from tourists and desecration.
After the discovery of the Virtaka cliff petroglyphs, Guntis Eniņš refrained from publicly announcing the exact locations of these new petroglyphs, in order to protect them from tourists and desecration, as you can see at the bottom in a carving from 2004. ( traveleranita)
The Last Pagas of Europa
Most - if not all - of Latvia’s discovered rock carvings and petroglyphs are situated in the area of Gauja River, where Brasla and Amata Rivers flow into it. Some of these locations have up to 300 symbols carved. However, dating these carvings has proved to be a very difficult task. One of Latvia’s leading archaeologists, Juris Urtāns, helped determine their age after his critical 2001 academic study.
This work was centered on the then-recently discovered petroglyphs on the so-called Raksti Cliff on the banks of the Rakstupīte river. The majority of those carvings were depictions of ships, and as such their discovery was a sensation. Urtāns’ academic publication was thus the first such work regarding the discussion of rock carvings in Latvia as a cultural and historical source. By a careful and complex analysis of the ship carvings, Urtāns managed to compare them to some later church graffiti and medieval symbols, dating the petroglyphs at Raksti Cliff to 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries AD.
This pointed that at least a part of petroglyphs discovered in the region are dated positively to the medieval period, showing that the custom of rock carving was preserved in the region of Latvia much longer than elsewhere. But then again, the Baltic nations were the last in Europe to be Christianized, and thus their pagan customs survived for much longer than elsewhere. Lithuania was Christianized around 1387 through severely violent means.
One of the proposed theories of the meaning of the carvings placed them in relation to the so-called “cross tree” tradition. This old custom had funerary origins. Inhabitants of Latvia would carve crosses in trees, usually pine, which was selected for that purpose. When the deceased was laid to rest, a cross was carved in the cross-tree, so his soul would not go past the spot marked with the cross.
It is proposed that the numerous markings on Virtaka Cliff had the same purpose, and were left there by mourners over the ages. The custom of cross-trees died out in the early 20th century with the onset of Russian rule over Latvia. Virtaka Cliff could thus be an important insight into the regional funerary traditions that date far back in time.
The Virtaka petroglyphs are an important part of Latvia's history. In 2016 the National Library of Latvia opened a lecture room called the Virtaka classroom, named in honor of the Virtaka rock on the Brasla River. The rock patterns have been replicated with an image on the wall in the room. ( Latvian Folklore Repository -LFK )
Piecing Together the Puzzle of the Past
The European pagan heritage is undoubtedly an important aspect of our collective history. The period of Old Europe, and the emerging of later cultures as shaped by the Indo European touches, both showcase a complex world view and a far-reaching mythology. And although much of it is still shrouded in mystery, ancient caves and sites such as the Virtaka Cliff can help us greatly in piecing the numerous puzzles of our past.
Top image: Discovered in 1986, the Virtaka Cliff petroglyphs in Latvia Source: Left; Poweroaklatvia, Right; Latvian Folklore Repository -LFK
Eniņš, G. and Urtāns, J. 2001. Latvian Sandstone Caves as Cultural Phenomena. Journal of Baltic Studies.
Laime, S. 2006. Rock Carvings as a New Kind of Cultural and Historical Resource in Latvia. Cosmos.
Unknown. Virtaka Cliff. Atlas Obscura. Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/virtaka-cliff
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