600 Rock Carvings Found by Clever Inquiry and Torchlight
Three friends in Norway have a remarkable way of spending in their spare time. Armed with torches, they go looking for prehistoric rock carvings, and with singular success. So far, they have helped uncover hundreds of Norway’s petroglyphs and have notched up a blinding 75 similar sites this year alone!
Hobby Expeditions Yield 600 New Rock Carvings in Norway
Until 2016, less than 500 petroglyph sites in Østfold in southeastern Norway were known to archaeologists, reports Sciencenorway.no. Now, thanks largely to the efforts of Lars Ole Klavestad, Magnus Tangen and Tormod Fjeld, there are 1,160 and the numbers are likely to go up substantially. The rock carvings found by the three amateurs have the potential of changing historians’ perceptions of life in prehistoric Norway.
Although a private initiative, the seriousness with which they regard their hobby can be judged by the fact that they have published the findings of their research in the journal Primitive Tider. The three professionals - landscape architect and artist Klavestad, archaeologist Tangen and graphic designer Fjeld – explained that they carry out their expeditions with great regularity: “We go out in the dark about one day a week,” Klavestad said, according to Science Norway.
Lars Ole Klavestad (left) is a landscape architect and artist. Magnus Tangen is an archaeologist. Tormod Fjeld is a graphic designer. Together, they have found close to 600 rock carving sites in Norwat. This photo is from an exploration trip in Indre Østfold where they discovered four new sites. On this small rock outcrop located in a field they found 38 cup marks. The photo was taken by the farmer on the property. (Science Norway)
Petroglyph Hunters Revolutionize Understanding of Rock Carvings in Norway
One reason for the extraordinary success of the Klavestad, Tangen and Fjeld is that they have taken account of the fact that the sea in Østfold in the Bronze Age around 3,000 years ago was about 15 meters (49 feet) higher than it is today. With this fact in mind they have analyzed the contour lines in maps to figure out where the coastline must have been at the time.
It is now known that a substantial chunk of the ancient rock art in Norway was carved by coastal dwellers, people who stayed on a beach or svaberg, a smooth rock sloping down to the sea. Rock carvings were also created on inland waterways that stretched farther into Østfold in that period. These inland waterways disappeared during the glacial rebound at the end of the Ice Age.
Prior to each expedition, the three amateurs make it a point to acquaint themselves fully with the land. They study it minutely and work out its past contours. They also invariably contact the landowners before they set out. “It’s a pretty big thrill when we find something exactly where our analysis indicated that it could be,” they said.
Found at Fredrikstad on 15 October, this rock carving in Norway revealed a depiction of warships. It’s important to note that in modern times this location is far away from the coast. (Fjeld, Klavestad, Tangen / Science in Norway)
Rock Carvings in Norway Have More to do with the Sea than Agriculture
3,000 years ago coastal Østfold was probably good agricultural and pasture land. Its smooth hard granite rock with its fine grain also offered the ideal surface for rock carvings. Since many of the rock carvings in Østfold, and elsewhere in the country, have been found in present-day agricultural fields, archaeologists working a hundred years ago concluded that they mostly depicted farming operations.
However, at least 90 per cent of the rock carvings discovered in Norway include features linked to the sea, fjords and lakes. The majority of these rock carvings depict boats or ships. But did they always draw from the lives of those who created the petroglyphs, or was their inspiration sometimes found elsewhere? Did the boats and ships represent real seafaring craft or were they sometimes symbolic? Experts are still attempting to answer these questions.
This year Klavestad, Tangen and Fjeld have ventured further inland to the countryside of Indre Østfold. Here too, far above the sea level, they have found rock carvings of ships and boats. These, they believe, may have been inspired more by art from the coastal region than the lives of the Bronze Age occupants of Indre Østfold.
The figures on Norwegian rock carvings found in Fredrikstad, including a ship with two people raising their arms. One holds a cup mark, while the other spreads his fingers. (Fjeld, Klavestad, Tangen / Science in Norway)
Play of Light and Shadow in Rock Carvings Found in Norway
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of their work is that they have used light in ingenious ways in order to spot the precious rock carvings. “It's all about using light in the right way,” explained Klavestad. “And over time, the experience we’ve gained has helped too.”
The trio has suggested that rock carvings in Norway were intended to appear as fleeting shadow images, to be seen at the right time of day and year. Their analysis has found that torchlight in the autumn darkness creates just this effect. Almost invisible in the daylight, on a rock facing a small bay in the Glomma river in Fredrikstad municipality, a beautifully carved pair of sandals was discovered with angled lighting in the dark.
Petroglyphs in Ancient Burial Grounds
The trio’s discovery of several rocks in Bronze and Iron Age burial grounds also challenged the conventional understanding of petroglyphs on various counts. For one, they called into question the idea that petroglyphs are only associated with marine clay sites.
They also prove that the same rock carvings may have different meanings in different times and contexts. “The rock carvings could have been a form of universal symbols with different meanings, depending on the context and time in which they were carved, as well as where in the landscape they were,” Klavestad stated.
Rock Carvings in Norway Reveal Unusual Information About the Past
These Norwegian rock carvings may offer evidence that Viking ships set out to the Mediterranean as far back as 3,000 years ago. The finding of rock carvings in burial grounds may also indicate that the practice lasted longer than previously believed.
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While cup-shaped depressions and ships and boats are the most common finds, they are by no means the only kinds of rock carvings the trio has found. One of their most unusual finds is a site on a rock outcrop in a small field in Råde municipality with about 575 cup marks, 28 crosses, eight star figures, one to two boats and a large number of strange figures and web-like structures.
The three have now set themselves another objective; to increase the number of known petroglyph sites in Østfold to 2,000. Given their determination and past record at finding unknown rock carvings in Norway, this ambitious goal may actually be well within their reach.
Top image: Using torchlight to reveal rock carvings in Norway by night. Source: Fjeld, Klavestad, Tangen / Science in Norway
By Sahir Pandey
Amundsen, B. 25 November 2022. “Three guys with torches have found almost 600 new rock carvings in their spare time” in sciencenorway.no. Available at: https://sciencenorway.no/archeology/three-guys-with-torches-have-found-almost-600-new-rock-carvings-in-their-spare-time/2114435
Tangen, M., Fjeld, T., Klavestad, L.O. 2021. “Antallet helleristningsfelt i Østfold doblet” in Primitive Tider, No. 23. Available at: https://doi.org/10.5617/pt.9260