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

What I’m Reading…

Fluid Pasts: archaeology of flow by Matt Edgeworth

This is a book about the archaeology of rivers. Like my previous book review,  it only has a tangential relationship to prehistory; it’s mostly a book about Medieval archaeology. Matt Edgeworth writes about the archaeological evidence for interactions with rivers. His main point is that this should not be seen as a cultural intervention on a natural phenomenon, but a human engagement with the dynamics of flow. He provides a number of fascinating accounts of how Medieval towns, such as Wallingford (Oxfordshire) or Hemington (Leicestershire), engaged with, and diverted the flow of rivers, sometimes for engineering purposes, occasionally for defence, or for subsistence – the river at Hemington contained fish traps positioned in the direction of flow of the river. Who knew that Medieval river management could be so interesting? I was gripped; this is a really concise, clearly written account.

The book has a section on the prehistory of rivers that argues that there was minimal engagement with rivers during British prehistory. I’m not sure I agree, especially when we consider the vast number of artefact deposits in rivers, think of the numbers of artefacts from the Thames from the Mesolithic to Iron Age. My point, though, is not to dispute Edgeworth’s argument – in fact he is saying something quite remarkable about how human communities interact with their environment. Flow, whether of rivers, of human movement through landscapes, of actions of working natural materials should all be regarded as processes that involve working with (not against) the environment. So the book offers some important lessons about how we should be thinking about archaeological interpretation, whatever period of the past we are interested in. A highly recommended read.

Dr A