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Newly-discovered rock art in Sweden depicting Stone Age seafarers   Credit: University of Gothenburg

Rock Art Reveals Prehistoric Seafaring in Sweden

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New technology has allowed experts to understand some enigmatic Stone Age rock-art in Sweden, revealing that prehistoric people were already taking to the seas. Archaeologists have been able to reveal a number of images that are not visible to the eye, for the first time. They have been able also to date the pictographs. As a result, researchers now have a better understanding of Stone Age seafarers and society, in this part of Europe.

The rock-art is located on some rocks at Tumlehed, near Gothenburg, in the south-west of Sweden.  These images are on the island of Hisingen, a suburb of Gothenburg, some 11 miles (15 km) from the center of Sweden’s second city. They are considered to be some of the best-preserved examples of rock art in all of Scandinavia. However, many of the images have badly faded and are now hard to make out by the naked eye. The site has been regularly investigated by archaeologists in recent decades.

Study of Rock Art

New technologies have allowed many new discoveries to be made in recent years. Archaeologist Bettina Schulz Paulsson and her colleagues decided to use the new technologies to study and date the rock art at Tumlehed, some of which were developed by NASA.  According to Mirage News ‘The new technologies used on the Tumlehed rock painting included the digital image enhancing program Dstretch’.

Tumlehed rock art (Gunnar Creutz / CC by SA 3.0)

A student assisted the archaeologists in the study. Fredrik Frykman Markurth used a portable X-ray fluorescence (PXRF) spectroscopy to analyze the paintings' pigment. This research ‘is a very good example of research-driven teaching’,  stated a local lecturer in archaeology, Christian Isendahl, according to the University of Gothenburg .

The use of technology allowed the researchers to date the paintings. It is now estimated that they were painted ‘between 4200-2500 years BCE by mobile hunters who had come by boat to the west coast of Sweden to hunt seal and whales’ according to Gothenburg University . The dating of the painting means that the rock art was created by people who engaged in long-distance seafaring.  The art is evidence that ancient people in this region were accomplished mariners who had sophisticated navigation skills.

Images from the Stone Age

The technologies have revealed a number of new motifs that were created by Stone Age people. Many of these have not been found in this part of Scandinavia previously. According to Phys.org, these motifs ‘ have only been found before in Finland, Russia, the north-east of Norway and northern Sweden’.  This area is now known as Fennoscandia. The distinctive rock art was created in two phases.

The most important of the motifs that were revealed by the technology is ‘pictographs of boats with elk-head stems’ reports Phys.org. These boat motifs are very common in ancient Fennoscandian rock paintings. Phys.org quotes Schulz Paulsson as stating that ‘Elk-head boats are often associated with hunting and fishing scenes’.

Tumlehed rock painting ( CC by SA 3.0)

Elk-Head Boats

It appears that the elk was a very important symbol in that culture, along with species of deer. They were the animals that the hunter-gathers of ancient Fennoscandia were most depended upon for food. Elks, as a result, had great symbolic and possibly even religious significance, for those who made the pictographs. 

The team of experts according to Schulz Paulsson have ‘interpreted the motifs in Tumlehed as three elk-head boats related to a small whale, a seal and four fish’ reports Phys.org..  It appears that the motif of the boats was related to hunting and fishing. They may have been painted to help the Stone Age people to be more successful in their hunts and long-distance maritime expeditions.

Newly-discovered rock art in Sweden depicting Stone Age seafarers   Credit: University of Gothenburg

The results show that technology can provide a window into the ancient past, by allowing us to see ancient art clearly. It is also confirming theories on the Stone Age and prehistoric mariners. The results of the research have been published in the prestigious Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

Top image: Newly-discovered rock art in Sweden depicting Stone Age seafarers   Credit: University of Gothenburg

By Ed Whelan

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