The Rock Drawings of Alta constitute the most important piece of evidence in favour of the existence of human activity in the confines of the Great North during the prehistoric period. Studied from 1967, the petroglyphs of the Alta fjord in the province of Tromsø were immediately classed among the leading rock art sites in the world. Close to the Arctic Circle, they are a valuable illustration of human activity between 6 200 and 2 500 BP in the Northern Hemisphere.
They are primordial evidence of the fauna, representing reindeer, elks, bears, dogs and/or wolves, foxes, hares, geese, ducks, swans, cormorants, halibut, salmon and whales, and of the environment. They also depict boating, hunting, trapping and fishing scenes, as well as people taking part in dances and ritual acts. In the final phase, some agricultural activities, rendered precarious by the climate, appear to have supplemented certain staples traditionally provided by hunting and fishing.
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.
Based on the metres 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 (Gjerde, 2010) 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
At the end of the last ice age, the land 'rebounded' after the bulk of the ice melted, and so this part of Norway slowly lifted by a process known as isostasy. The ice sheet reached its greatest extent and thickness 20 000 years ago, and most melting occurred between 16 000 and 10 000 years ago. As the ice retreated, coastlines rebounded. This uplift did not stop when the ice had melted, it continues to this day.
Thus any particular group of hunters and fishers had only a limited band of glacier-smoothed rock on which to make their engravings, with later groups forced (except during the short summer) to use the intertidal zone for their artworks.
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