THE ROCK ART OF ALTA

           
      Reindeer and a hunter with a taut bow. Bergbukten 4B, Hjemmeluft. Phase 1. Foto: Karin Tansem, World Heritage Rock Art Centre - Alta Museum (WAM) ©

    Alta has the largest concentration of rock art in Northern Europe made by people with a hunting-fishing economy. The rock art consists of carvings and paintings made between ca 7000 to 2000 years ago. The rock art in Hjemmeluft, Kåfjord, Transfarelv, Storsteinen and Amtmannsnes are inscribed on the UNESCO's World Heritage List. The rock art in Isnestoften and Komsa are not part of the World Heritage. All the rock art sites in Alta are open-air sites.

    Discovering the rock art
    The first rock art in Alta was discovered 60 years ago. It was a small stone known as Pippisteinen ("The Pippi-stone"), which was found close to Isnestoften on the westside of the Altafjord. The next find was the rock paintings in Transfarelv, which were reported to Tromsø Museum in 1966. Several rock carving areas were discovered in the Altafjord during the 1970s. All of the four rock carving areas on the World Heritage List were discovered during this decade (in 1973, 1977 and 1978). The first discoveries in each of the areas were made accidentally by private individuals. Within the World Heritage Areas several more panels and/or carvings have been discovered during the years, and this is a process which seems to be without end.
     
           
      Two bears. Bergbukten 4A, Hjemmeluft. Phase 1. 
    Photo: Karin Tansem, WAM ©

    Outside of the World Heritage Areas, however, new rock art since Pippisteinen has only recently been discovered. In 1998 another stone with carvings on it was found on Isnestoften, this time on Langnesholmen. Three new panels of rock carvings were discovered again on this small islet ten years later, in 2008. Lastly, we can mention an area of rock paintings in Komsa which was discovered in 2000 in connection with the registration of cultural heritage monuments in the area. All of these finds have been made after the rock art in Alta was inscribed on the World Heritage List, and they have not been included on the list.  
     
     
    Inscription on the UNESCO's World Heritage List
    The rock art in Alta was inscribed on the World Heritage List on December 3rd 1985, as the only pre-historic cultural heritage monument in Norway. The world heritage in Alta consists of four areas of rock carvings (Hjemmeluft, Kåfjord, Amtmannsnes and Storsteinen), and one area of rock paintings (Transfarelvdalen). They are all located in the bottom of the Altafjord, and the distance between the westernmost and the easternmost area is only 15 km. When the rock art was inscribed on the list, the number of carvings and paintings was estimated to slightly more than 3000. Today that amount has been doubled, with more than 6000 registered carvings and paintings spread out over around a hundred panels. Out of this number the rock paintings constitute only six panels with about fifty paintings all together. The majority is carvings, and Hjemmeluft, where the World Heritage Rock Art Centre – Alta Museum is located, is the biggest area. This is also the only area that has been adapted for visitors.
     
           
      Geometric figure. Transfarelv 3. Photo: Karin Tansem, WAM ©

    The motifs
    The rock art in Alta was created by hunters and fishers. It shows a part of their beliefs and rituals, and the figures may have been elements in myths or stories. The rock carvings also say something about the natural surroundings and the resource basis through the selection of animals that is depicted (reindeer, elk, bear, dog/wolf, fox, hare, goose, duck, swan, halibut, salmon, whale). Other archeological finds from Finnmark, such as remains of bones from meals, show that the carvings in Alta are not necessarily indicative of the resources that the people used. For example, fish bones (cod, pollock, haddock) dominate among the remains, but the rock carvings depict mostly halibut. In addition to the animal species, the rock carvings also show people, boats, tools, different geometric patterns and figures. One can often find large scenes in which humans and animals participate in different activities, like hunting, gathering, fishing, dances and rituals. 
     
    Dating of the rock carvings
    It is assumed that the rock carvings in Alta were made close to the sea, on rocks by the beach. As the land rose and new, smooth rocks appeared, these were used for carvings. The oldest panels are therefore high above the modern sea level, while the younger carvings are located further down in the landscape. It is unclear whether the rock paintings had the same close attachment to the sea and the beach.

           
      Human figure. Amtmannsnes 2B. Phase 3. Photo: Karin Tansem, WAM ©
    Based on the meters above sea level (26,5-8,5 m.a.s.l.), professor Knut Helskog at Tromsø Museum - The University Museum has dated the rock carvings in Alta to the period from around 4200 B.C. to 200 A.D. Within this long period of time the rock carvings are divided into five different phases based on stylistic changes (Helskog 2000):

    Phase 1: 4200-3300 B.C.
    Phase 2: 3300-1800 B.C.
    Phase 3: 1800-900 B.C.
    Phase 4: 900-100 B.C.
    Phase 5: 100 B.C.-200 A.D.
     
    In his thesis for the dissertation for the degree of Philosophiae Doctor at the University of Tromsø, Jan Magne Gjerde suggests that the rock carvings in Alta are thousand years older than previously assumed:

    Phase 1: 5200-4200 BC
    Phase 2: 4200-3000 BC
    Phase 3: 3000-2000 BC
    Phase 4: 1700-1200 BC
    Phase 5: 1100-200 BC