Izzy Bunting visits the Alta Museum and Hjemmeluft carvings – a UNESCO World Heritage site in the far north of Norway
If you visit the shoreline of Altafjord, in northern Norway, when the sun is low in the sky, it's as if the stones have come to life. At this magical time, thousands of prehistoric carvings are highlighted by the movement of light and shadow over the rocks.
When we arrived at Alta Museum it quickly became clear why the area has been designated as one of Norway's eight UNESCO World Heritage sites. This area, deep into the Arctic Circle, has more hunter-gatherer rock art than any other place in northern Europe – and with many rock paintings, prehistoric settlements, and thousands of petroglyphs (rock carvings), it's no surprise that Alta has been chosen to represent the country's cultural heritage.
The petroglyphs at Alta are incredibly well preserved, as they were covered by turf until their discovery in the 1960s. But what makes the site so special is that it illustrates the life and activities of prehistoric people over a span of more than 5,000 years – this is half of the time that people have lived in Norway.
As you near the shoreline, the carvings get more and more recent. After the last Ice Age, the sea level began to fall – petroglyphs were carved at lower points in the landscape, as the water receded, on rocks that had been made into natural, smooth canvases by the movement of the sea.
This shows us gradual change over centuries and millennia – changing art styles, different types of boat, and the importance of different animals. It seems that later people were less interested in elk hunting and finishing – but reindeer continued to trot through 5,000 years' worth of art.
The significance of bears
Animal imagery is prolific at Hjemmeluft. We were particularly intrigued by the many carvings of bears – there are images of thousands of bear tracks and 75 bears, suggesting that these creatures played a key part in the lives and beliefs of the prehistoric people. We found out that it's possible hunter-gatherers believed bears to be supernatural beings.
Bear tracks move up and down the rock panels vertically, and one bear is even depicted on the floor of the ocean – this suggests that the mammal was believed to be capable of travelling between worlds in the ancient cosmos. There's also a theory that the site was chosen because of the bear – a natural shape in one of the stones forms a bear's head, and the art is merged with the existing pattern.
Other petroglyphs illustrate many aspects of life at the time: dances and rituals, a figure hunting for reindeer, and people setting sail on intricate boats. The scenes are frequently merged with the natural forms of the rock, which creates a landscape of mountains, valleys, and even the Northern Lights.
There is also evidence of communication with people thousands of kilometers away – this is backed up by physical artefacts found at nearby settlements. In fact, the high density of art could mean that Alta was an important meeting place.
The works have been highlighted with red-ochre paint, which was probably the original colour of the carvings. This makes them easier to distinguish amongst the rocks, and means Alta's rock art is a striking sight to behold.
Although the museum is open all year, summer is the best time to visit – as during winter, of course, the rocks are covered in snow. However, if you're planning to visit in the winter, don't be disheartened - three stones featuring real prehistoric rock carvings are housed inside the museum building and can be seen all year round.
And, even in summer, spending some time inside the museum building is highly recommended after admiring the petroglyphs. It's a great way to find out more about the rock art in a permanent exhibition – and you can enjoy exhibits about the Northern Lights and Sami pre-Christian religion. The museum also hosts a number of temporary exhibitions throughout the year, so don't forget to check these out.
The museum's café is a superb place for a light lunch or coffee break, with gorgeous views across Altafjord. This sweeping vista of sea and distant mountains is pristine, having remained almost unchanged since Neolithic times. The Museum shop offers locally produced goods, with many high-quality Norwegian gifts and souvenirs.
Through the rock carving at the Alta Museum, we can learn much about the lives of people living thousands of years ago – what they ate, how they travelled, and what was significant to them. The museum currently runs a teaching programme to educate children and young adults about their culture and heritage, and has developed many new techniques to preserve these remarkable carvings for future generations.
Green Adventures November 2018
The largest site, Hjemmeluft, is one of the five areas that make up the UNSECO site, and is the only one that is open to the public. From Alta Museum's visitor centre a wooden boardwalk weaves between trees and the huge, flat rocks that acted as canvases for hunter-gatherer societies from around 5,000 BC to the year 0. If you're pressed for time, you can choose a short 1.2km walk close to the museum – or enjoy a longer 3km circuit that takes you along the shoreline of the nearby fjord.
Viewing platforms are dispersed along the boardwalk, allowing visitors to marvel at the most spectacular of the carved panels. The museum provides an interactive way to experience the rock art. With a fantastic audio guide (available in different languages), that can be listened to while walking around the exhibits, visitors can learn all about the time in which the petroglyphs were made, and the meanings behind many of the illustrations.