DATING THE ROCK ART

The rock carvings in Alta were made between about 7000 and 2000 years before our time (5000 BC -0). They can be divided into phases/periods which are calculated on the basis of similarities and differences in form and motifs which coincide with their location above sea-level.




Hibernating bears is one example of similar depictions, that are situated far apart, but at the same altitude. These figures are from Kåfjord and hjemmeluft, both located at 24 masl. Bear dens are only found between 22 and 26 masl.


Norwegian rock-art experts Helskog and Gjerde have suggested different chronologies for the rock carvings. Each phase/period lasts for roughly 1000 years, apart from Helskog’s period 1, which lasts for 200 years. The table below shows the two most recent suggestions for dating and division of phases/periods. All dates in the table are BC, unless otherwise noted.

 

Masl Jan Magne Gjerde 2010* Masl Knut Helskog 2012*
    25,5-26 Period I: 5000-4800
22-26 Phase 1: 5200-4200 22-25 Period II: 4800-4000
17-21 Phase  2: 4200-3000 17-21 Period III: 4000-2700
14-17 Phase  3: 3000-2000 14-17 Period VI: 2700-1700
11-12,5 Phase  4: 1700-1200 11-12,5 Period V: 1700-500
9-10 Phase  5: 1100-200 9-10 Period VI: 500- 100 A.D


It was earlier thought that the oldest rock carvings were made around about 4200BC, but recent research has pushed back the dating by about 1000 years.


The rock paintings in Alta are dated to the last 2000 years before the birth of Christ. Unlike the rock carvings, this dating has nothing to do with height above sea level, and the dating of these rock paintings is more uncertain.


More about the dating

When you attempt to date archaeological material, there are various methods that can be used.  Many things can be dated with the aid of 14c-methods, where the amount of Carbon 14 in organic material, such as charcoal and bones, is measured.  These methods exclude any direct dating of the rock-carvings.  In many cases the dating can be compared with similar archaeological material which has been reliably dated.  This, of course, means that there needs to be a reliable set of material to compare with, but with regards to the rock carvings in Alta there are simply no comparisons.  It is also possible to date things on the basis of archaeological finds made on the same site, but in the case of rock carving sites such finds are very rare.

Because of these considerations the rock carvings in Alta are dated according to very different criteria, namely how high they are above today’s sea level, because we believe the carvings were made in the shoreline zone.  Due to the raising of the land after the last ice-age, rocks which were once below sea level have risen above the sea, which of course means that the rock carvings cannot be older than the time the rock surfaces they are carved into rose out of the sea.
 

Geologists have calculated how much the land has risen in different locations, and it is these calculations which are used to date the rock carving sites. The dating of shorelines is a specialised field where new research will often lead to new estimates.  The roughly 6000 rock carvings in Alta are between 25.5 and 9 metres above sea level, with those that are highest up being the oldest.  A number of convincing arguments have been put forward to prove that the rock carvings were made along what was once the shoreline.  In the sea-spray zone the rocks are clean and without vegetation, and from early on archaeologists have seen these surfaces as a natural choice for the rock carvers.  Knut Helskog, who has done most research into the rock carvings in Alta, has argued that there was a cultural connection. The shoreline is the zone where land, air and water meet, a transitional zone between different worlds, thus making it a fitting site for rituals and communication between the spirits and gods.  Helskog also connects the motifs of the oldest carvings with this theory.

The most concrete/convincing argument for the view that the rock carvings were made in the shoreline zone is in the similarities in figures and motifs between sites which are found far from each other but at the same height above sea level.  By contrast, the motifs, figures and style change character as you descend down the landscape, showing that these rock carvings were made over a period of time, and not at the same time. The similarities between sites at the same height and the differences between sites at different levels make it possible to distinguish between phases or periods.  In the 1980s Helskog made a relative chronology and division into 5 distinct phases.  In recent years the dating of the oldest rock carvings has been moved back in time. Until more reliable/accurate methods for dating the shoreline are found, the dating can only be approximate.

 
These human figures holding elk head sticks are located on four different panels, Kåfjord 1, Bergbukten 4A, Bergheim 1 and Ole Pedersen 9.

Even though the dating is only approximate, Helskog’s relative chronology and division into phases  has not been notably challenged, and the correspondence between height above sea level, form and choice of motif which he pointed to in the mid-80s is difficult to refute/disprove.

The table below shows the differences and similarities between the various phases/periods. In some cases the rock carvings are dated on the basis of their form and style. Some of the figures on Storsteinen, for example, show such striking similarities to the figures on Amtmannsnes that they can be dated to the same period even though they were engraved much higher up in the terrain than those at Amtmannsness.





The rock paintings in Alta are on steep rock walls, often in areas that are somewhat inaccessible. So far there seems to be no clear connection between the sea level and the location of the paintings, unlike the case of the rock carvings. The dating of the shoreline levels has therefore not been used  in efforts to date these cultural monuments/relics.   As a rule they are compared with rock paintings discovered at other locations in Northern Norway in an effort to estimate their age, and many of these are often dated to the early Iron and Bronze Ages (2000BC -300AD). In Finland, however, many of the rock paintings are dated to the Stone Age.


If you’d like to learn more about these things, you could consult these sources:


Helskog, Knut, 1988. Helleristningene i Alta: spor etter ritualer og dagligliv i Finnmarks forhistorie
Alta, Knut Helskog, distribuert av Alta Museum.

Helskog, Knut, 1999: The Shore Connection. Cognitive Landscape and Communication with Rock Carvings in Northernmost Europe. Norwegian Archaeological Review 32 (2), 73-94.

Gjerde, Jan Magne, 2010: Rock art and landscapes. Studies of Stone Age rock art from Northern FennoscandiaAvhandling for Ph.d, Fakultet for humaniora, samfunnsvitskap og lærarutdanninng Tromsø: Universitetet I Tromsø. http://munin.uit.no/handle/10037/2741
 

Helskog, Knut, 2014: Communicating with the World of Beings: The World Heritage rock art sites in Alta, Arctic Norway. Oxbow Books 2014 ISBN 9781782974116.