Rock Art of Alta, Norway

An exceptional testimony of the life, environment and activities of hunter-gatherer societies in the Arctic in prehistoric times

Rock Art of Alta (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

Granted World Heritage status in 1985, the Rock Art of Alta is located in the northernmost part of Norway, far above the Arctic Circle, at the head of the Alta Fjord. 

Map of the World Heritage areas (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

The site contains thousands of rock carvings and paintings, which range in age from 2,000 to 7,000 years old, and are located across five different areas: Hjemmeluft, Kåfjord, Storsteinen, Amtmannsnes and Transfarelvdalen.

Hjemmeluft (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

The Rock Art of Alta’s most well-known rock art panels can be found in Hjemmeluft, the home of the Alta Museum, which also serves as a World Heritage visitor centre and allows the public to easily access and experience up close the area’s carvings.

Kåfjord (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

Kåfjord is the largest single rock art panel in Alta. Due to the softness and, therefore, vulnerability of the beautiful red rock on which the carvings were made, public access is not permitted. The site is instead used for testing new methods of rock art preservation. 

Storsteinen (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

Storsteinen, meaning “big rock”, is a vast boulder whose surface is riddled with overlapping carvings made over a long period of time. Of all the Alta carvings that are on the World Heritage List, these were the first to be discovered and mainly depict reindeer, elk and people.

Amtmannsnes (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

The panels on the peninsula of Amtmannsnes display a unique set of carvings that are estimated to have been made 4,000-5,000 years ago. The majority of the carvings made during this period seem to have been at this site, along with a small number which were made at Storsteinen.

Transfarelvdalen (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

Transfarelvdalen is home to the only rock paintings of the Alta rock art World Heritage site. Around 60 figures in total, which include people, deer and geometrical figures, were created using a mixture of iron oxide and blood or fat. Hazardous terrain makes access difficult.

Alta rock carvings (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

While only the rock carvings at Hjemmeluft are open to the public, all the other stunning carvings and paintings of the Rock Art of Alta World Heritage site can be viewed online in the digital archives of the Alta Museum:

Smooth rock surfaces at shoreline (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

The carvings in Alta were made on the smooth surfaces of the rocks at the shoreline. However, when the thick ice which had covered Scandinavia melted away at the end of the last Ice Age, and the pressure from the weight of the ice eased, the land rose, as did the rock carvings. 

As new, smooth surfaces emerged from the sea, new carvings would be made. The rock art can today be found at different elevations, from around 8 to 25 metres above sea level, with the oldest carvings at the highest point of the terrain and the youngest at the lowest.

Discoveries (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

Rock art was first discovered in Alta in the 1960s and ‘70s. Since then, an immense amount of rock art has been revealed, with over 6,000 figures having been found to date. Good preservation conditions allow the study of rock art production. 

In the past, it was common practice to paint the rock art red upon discovery, to make it more visible . Nowadays, many of the carvings have had their red paint removed in order to preserve their authenticity and integrity. 

Life above the Arctic Circle (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

The rock art in Alta tells us about life under polar skies and the midnight sun: 

Boats were an important means of transport, and in the winter, snowshoes and skis were good for moving about in the deep snow.

People worked together hunting reindeer, elk and bears, fishing for whales, halibut, cod and pollock, and collecting berries, plants and bird eggs. 

Movements (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

Alta has more rock art made by hunter-gatherers than any other place in northern Europe, which suggests that it was an important meeting place in the Stone Age. People travelled long distances, even 7,000 years ago, acquiring new understandings and experiences in the process.

Trapping fence (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

Pictured is the world’s oldest depiction of a trapping fence. These were used when the wild reindeer had spent a long summer on the moorland pastures and the quality of the meat and hides was at its best. People could prepare for the coming winter with a sense of security. 

The trapping method was highly effective but also had an important social function in that many people gathered, strengthening their bonds as they carried out the task together. The image shows around 30 reindeer that have been corralled into the enclosed area, with more behind.

Worn carvings (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

This panel (pictured) is rather special. On the right are some carvings which were worn down by the waves shortly after they were made. Some time later, new carvings were made on the same surface, partly on top of the water-eroded ones. Can you see the difference between them?

Arctic winter (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

Throughout the long months of the Arctic winter, the Rock Art of Alta is protected by a thick layer of snow. The beauty of the carvings and paintings is revealed once again as the snow melts with the arrival of spring. 

Dance of light and dark (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

Light can make the carvings come to life, bringing out their details and beauty; a lack of light making them lifeless or invisible. The ideal time to visit the carvings is when the sun is low over the horizon and the shadows make every single carving stroke visible.

Shoreline (1985) by Rock Art of AltaUNESCO World Heritage

To walk around Hjemmeluft is to walk in the footsteps of the people who, for 5000 years, carved their stories into the rocks. A stroll along the pathways is like a journey through history, a valuable journey which adds to our understanding of prehistoric times in the Far North.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by World Heritage Rock Art Centre - Alta Museum:

More on Rock Art of Alta and World Heritage:

Photos: Filmmark Rune Sjøsted/Alta Museum, HenrikJ - panoramio, World Heritage Centre for Rock Art - Alta Museum, Karin Tansem, Heidi Johansen, Jensvins, Rune Normann, Mari Arntzen, Andreas Haldorsen, Filmmark Rune Sjøsted/Alta Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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