Meetings Make History 2015: rock art and rapids

In 2013 I blogged about a trip to western Norway as part of the Oslo-based ‘Meetings Make History’ project. Last month the ‘Meetings Make History’ project team met for the last time (sadly) in the Jämtland and Västernorrland regions, eastern Sweden. Our meeting took place close to Nämforsen.

We began with a day of intense discussion at the Nämforsen museum. Our purpose was to discuss the book manuscript written by the director of the ‘Meetings Make History’ project, Ingrid Fuglestvedt. The book deals with rock art, process and identity in the Stone Age (particularly late Mesolithic) populations of northern Scandinavia. It was amazing to discuss the book manuscript in such detail, and I am convinced it will become a classic of Scandinavian rock art literature; it is sure to provoke debate and attract admiration in equal measure. After our discussion we were rewarded with fantastic views of the Ångermanälven River.

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One of the advantages of visiting Sweden in summer is the long hours of daylight. After the culinary delights of Swedish Pizza (a unique dish, unlike the Italian-style pizza I am accustomed to), in the evening we were able to visit the rock art at Nämforsen. Nämforsen is one of the key rock art sites in northern Scandinavia made famous by the pioneering work of Gustaf Hallström, and in the English-speaking world by the interpretative endeavours of Chris Tilley.

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The Nämforsen site consists of three separate sites on three large flat outcrops in the Ångermanälven River: Laxön, Brådön and Notön. The first thing that strikes you as you visit Nämforsen is the location: the sites are situated close to the rapids in the river; though the river is presently dammed for hydroelectric power you still gain a sense of the force, power and presence of the river. Two of the sites (Brådön and Notön) are inaccessible due to the force of the rapids, but the Laxön site alone is spectacular with its series of images of elk, boats and the occasional fish. Particularly clear is the transformative logic of the Mesolithic rock artists: one kind of image is quickly transformed into another, elks become boats, and boats become elk. Notice how the antlers of the elk on the right appear boat-like:

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Elk were to be the motif of the visit, as I was to find out the following day…..

The second day was to be a full-day fieldtrip looking at the rock art sites of Jämtland. Coming from one of the most manicured landscapes in western Europe (southern England), in which the wildest animal it is possible to encounter is the badger, I was struck by the scale and ruggedness of the landscape, and the variety of large animals we spotted on our travels: at least 4 elk, a herd of semi-domestic reindeer (Jämtland is part of Saami territory and the reindeer are partly domesticated but allowed to forage wild), several cranes.

Out first call was at Glösa. Here is the entrance to the Glösa outdoor-museum:

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Yes those are elks feet suspended above the entrance way: we were in the land of the elk people.

Our guide demonstrated the usefulness of the elk by dressing in replica prehistoric costume made from elk skins. He also wore an elk-tooth necklace. His scarf, by contrast, is a Pine-Marten pelt.

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We were treated to pit-cooked salmon (perfectly cooked and served with Mesolithic-style tools), and elk-stew (though this vegetarian author passed on this delicacy).

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The Glösa rock art site was the reason for our visit and it did not disappoint. Situated by a forest stream running into Alsen lake, the rock art site was all the more spectacular as the stream was in full spate, running over the images of elk. The elk images are especially detailed and several were carved with internal organs: heart, lungs, stomach. I’d read about this phenomenon but this was the first time I’d seen images like this outside the pages of a book.

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Again, like Nämforsen, the location of Glösa was astounding, and the theme of rock art and rushing water appeared to be a consistency of the region.

Our next site was Gärde, where again the location was spectacular. At Gärde two rock art sites are located next to the Gärdeforsen rapids in the Gärdesån River. The first site, dating to the late Mesolithic, is of a series of elk, complete with animal tracks:

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The second site, of early Mesolithic date, was situated in the centre of the River and was accessed by a bridge. Here a series of large animals were depicted: elk and bear. These larger animal figures, usually made by polishing and rubbing, are distinctive of an early period, and are typically considered to date from c.8000 BC. Again I’d read about them, but had not seen them before: they are strikingly different from the other later rock art images we had seen.

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Once again the Gärde site brought home to me one of the joys of studying rock art, and one of the key aspects of rock art sites: their spectacular landscape location. The landscape of Jämtland alone was amazing, but the rock art sites somehow crystallized the power of that landscape.

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Dr A

Scanning the Folkton Drums

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Photo: Andrew Cochrane

I am currently working on a project looking at the art of portable Neolithic artefacts from Britain and Ireland. One of the remarkable findings so far is the degree to which markings on these artefacts have been erased and reworked. This is especially true of chalk artefacts. These processes of reworking provide important information about craft techniques, and the significance of art and imagery in this period of prehistory.

To test these observations it was important to analyse the most spectacular chalk artefacts from the British Neolithic – the Folkton Drums.  By special request the ‘drums’ – carved cylinders of chalk from Neolithic Yorkshire – were removed from display in the British Museum for an intensive day of analysis. So on 4th April a group of researchers from Archaeology University of Southampton (Marta Diaz Guardamino Uribe, Lena Kotoula, Andrew Meirion Jones) and Cardiff University (Andrew Cochrane), Winchester School of Art (Ian Dawson and Chris Carter) and Central St. Martins Art School, London (Louisa Minkin), recorded the ‘drums’ using a hand-held laser scanner and using RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging).

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Photo: Andrew Cochrane

Both techniques were used to analyse trace evidence of reworking or recarving. The techniques we used take some time to process so we will not know the results for a few weeks, though preliminary results look pretty amazing (updates to follow). On the day we also had lots of opportunity for detailed analysis of the three Folkton Drums, and learnt a great deal more about the variety of different techniques used to carve them. The ‘drums’ are one of a select group of Neolithic artefacts with representational features – they have faces – and by the end of the day all of us had become captivated by them.

Dr A

 

Meetings Make History: Part 3

Meetings Make History: Part Three.

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And finally, day three of the Meetings Make History study tour/field trip, Norway.

The day began with the boat to Vingen meeting us on the quayside of the hotel. I’d been expecting to travel some distance to catch the boat and was amazed that we just had to step out of our hotel to board our launch. Once we were aboard the boat turned and took us out past a few small islands and down the fjord. The sun was shining which meant we were able to sit or stand on deck and enjoy the amazing scenery of western Norway as we passed down the fjords to Vingen.

Camera’s were clicking over most of the journey, but people got really frenzied as we neared our goal. Vingen is situated at the end of a fjord, and is enclosed by a series of dramatic mountains to either side. Lots of opportunities for photography.

 

As we neared Vingen, Joakim Goldhahn turned to me and said ‘Vingen is in the top ten of rock art sites worldwide, you won’t step on a rock without finding rock art’. Joakim has travelled the world studying rock art, and as it turned out his statement was quite true. Most people were straining forward on the boat, eager to get to the site – it’s hard to keep a rock art specialist from their rock art!

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Finally we stopped at the Vingen quay and jumped off the boat. The Vingen site runs along the base of a steep mountain scarp, dipping into the fjord.

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On the day we visited it all seemed amazingly green and fertile. The lowest region of the site would have been beneath the fjord during prehistory and there is no rock art there. To see the rock art motifs we had to head a little higher up the slope.

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Trond Lødøen guided us on the Vingen tour. We began on the steeply sloping rock face known as Vehammeren.

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This was covered in finely pecked images of red deer, most of the facing down the fjord. It was amazing to consider how the images had been made, as they were positioned on such a steep rock face; it was hard enough standing up, clinging on the rock to take photographs. The upper face of this sloped rock also had a series of images, including one of the few images of a whale.

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Having scrambled up the rock were we able to walk down the other side quite easily, where we were faced with one of the most significant images on the site – the large red deer image. This is situated on a paler rock, dramatically framed by the massive hillside across the fjord. This motif is the largest on the site, and it is surrounded by other smaller motifs of animals, and a stick figure human.

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In the conference on day one, Trond had discussed these stick figure human motifs, which look a little like centipedes with a single line and a series of ‘legs’, as representations of excarnated people – excarnation (the exposure of dead bodies) is an aspect of Mesolithic burial. At the time I was unsure of this interpretation. However once we were out on site, several of us spent some time discussing this idea with Trond, and looked at the motifs in situ. The more we looked and discussed the motifs on site, the more this interpretation seemed valid; these motifs were often carved away from the other motifs of animals on flat exposed surfaces.

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Apart from the rock art motifs, the other exciting aspect of Vingen is its evidence for Mesolithic houses, and Trond pointed out several of these circular structures. A number of these had been excavated, and a stone tool of diabase, from the quarry site of Stakaneset, had been found outside one of these houses, close to a carved rock.

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Joakim’s prediction was perfectly true. In the upper reaches of the site every stone we touched had been carved. One of the features of the site is that several of these carved stones were hidden, sometimes in upside down overhangs, at other places, in rock shelters. It was almost as if, due to its sacred nature, every stone had to be carved.

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Carvings continued deep into the inner recesses of the site towards the large natural waterfall that ran down the mountain face (now dammed upstream by an hydroelectric powerplant), and more images were found on the upper slope of the rock face.

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Most of the images at Vingen consist of red deer in a variety of poses of action and inaction. Deer seem to occupy an important place at Vingen, just as they did at Ausevik, visited on day one. The deer at Vingen were elaborately carved, many with interior decorative motifs, much like those that Ingrid had described in her talk on day one.

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Were these the totemic motifs of the people who had occupied Vingen in the Mesolithic? How had Vingen been occupied, was it periodically visited, was it more permanently occupied? Was Vingen used for the specialized excarnation of the dead? These questions, and many more, occupied our discussions as we explored Vingen. These were questions stimulated by the spectacular archaeology of this region of western Norway, and by the spectacular archaeologists taking part in the ‘Meetings make History’ project.

 

We left Vingen energised by the archaeology, the fantastic weather, the dramatic scenery. I was sorry to leave. I hope to return  someday….

Dr A

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