Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Remarkable Russian petroglyphs

Artefacts are usually displayed in museums but sometimes there are some that just can’t be put on exhibition – as is the case with one that is hidden deep in the Russian forests.

It was known that there were rock carvings on some islands in Lake Kanozero, and Jan Magne Gjerde, project manager at the Tromsø University Museum, went out there to document them as part of his doctoral work however, when he and his colleagues had completed their work, the number of known petroglyphs had risen from 200 to over 1,000.

“I still get chills up my spine when I talk about it because it was such an emotional experience finding these carvings,” says Gjerde. “No matter how much I explore over the next 50 years, chances are close to zero that I’ll ever find anything comparable.”

Join a 5,000-year-old bear hunt

In the summer of 2005, Gjerde drove more than 1000 kilometres east to Lake Kanozero. Together with Russian colleagues he discovered what he calls some of the world’s oldest animated cartoons.

“Petroglyphs are found at four sites in the area − on three islands and on a stone block on the lakeshore. The oldest ones date to between 5,000 and 6,000 years old,” explains Gjerde. The main site is on the island of Kanozero.

According to Gjerde, these aren’t like the petroglyphs they are used to seeing, depicting one moose or one deer. These are fantastic cartoons presenting entire episodes. For example the one they found at the main site, which depicts a bear hunt.

He describes in detail a hunter who is heading uphill on skis and tracking a bear. The ski tracks are just as one would expect for someone going up a slope with a good distance between the strides. The hunter then gets his feet together, skis down a slope, stops, removes his skis, takes four steps – and plunges his spear into the bear.

“This is the oldest example of a cartoon petroglyph we know of, at least in Northern Europe, so it was utterly thrilling to get the chance to be part of this discovery,” he says.

Testifying to a rich society

Gjerde and his colleagues camped in a tent on Kanozero for ten days while documenting the discoveries. Time flies when you suddenly have to make ten times as many drawings as you expected.

They marked off the figures in chalk and then traced this onto plastic sheets, which could be brought back home and properly photographed and documented.

Gjerde admits that the task was challenging at times because it would suddenly start raining, and drawing on wet plastic with a felt pen isn’t all that easy.

“Actually I didn’t have enough plastic sheeting with me because I had only expected 200 petroglyphs, not a thousand. It was pretty frustrating at times and I used all my clothes and everything I had of paper to dry off the plastic.”

The figures depicted in the Lake Kanozero rock carvings include moose, boats, whales, humans, harpoon lines, beavers and all kinds of other ordinary and extraordinary images and scenes from the distant past.

And this isn’t artwork that was easy to make.

“Look for instance at this whale,” he says. “It’s over a metre long and the entire figure is hewn out in full depth. This says something about the lifestyle of the people who made the carvings. It must have been a fairly rich society because to make such grand petroglyphs you need your share of leisure time.”
Just showing off?

The purpose of the petroglyphs is a matter of debate. Were they illustrations to stories, did they have a religious significance or were there other reasons why these prehistoric people carved images of themselves and their deeds into the bedrock?

“We don’t know for sure why they did this, but boasting about a successful hunt is still something we do. This could be evidence of bragging in the Stone Age. It would be a lot better to come home with a tale of killing a bear than bringing back a hare.”

He thinks there was probably there was more to it than just bragging, but when you catch a 1,300 kg beluga whale, your food supply is secured for weeks.

“It’s not hard to understand that they wanted to boast about something like that.”

5,000-year interval erased

“We can excavate a settlement or find arrowheads but we usually don’t have direct evidence of what sort of animals have been hunted with such weapons,” says Gjerde, as he points to a figure of harpoon lines which indicate that the people had been out on the White Sea hunting whales.

Most of the petroglyphs were still covered in sod when Gjerde and his colleagues arrived. So much of their time was spent removing this turf and washing the uncovered rock.
Gjerde says their efforts were like erasing the time interval of 5,000 years.

It was like burying a snapshot today and someone in the distant future would get a notion of what was going on when you were alive.

“These people, at this spot, documented part of their lives and I was fortunate to be one of the first people in 5,000 years to see it,” he says.

Visit Past Horizons to see the incredible pictures.

Jakobsen, Hanne. 2012. "Remarkable Russian petroglyphs". Past Horizons. Posted: March 18, 2012. Available online:

Translated by Glenn Ostling

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