The youngest rock art in Alta was made around the birth of Christ, and the oldest dates to before people had invented the wheel. But how do we know this?

There are two factors which enable us to date the rock art in Alta: 1) The rock carvings were made down by the shoreline, and 2) The land upheaval. The oldest figures we have here in Alta are about 7000 years old and the youngest 2000 years old. About 12000 years ago the earth began to warm up and the Ice Age came to an end. All of the ice that had been compressing the landmass melted, and the land began to rise from the sea. About 7000 years ago the surfaces where the oldest carvings are found had now become dry land. We can therefore say that the carvings which were made at the water’s edge were made about 7000 years ago. The land continued to rise, and as the figures moved further and further away from the sea, it became necessary in time to carve new figures by the shoreline. These must therefore necessarily be younger than the former. This happened again and again until c. 2000 years ago when the last (known) rock carvings were made here in Alta. The result is that the rock art which has been found can be dated and systematised. All the art at 26-22 m a.s.l. is done in the same style. The art at 21-17m a.s.l. is done in another style, and so on. We end up with five “belts” or layers in the terrain that are known as “phases”. Phase 1 is farthest from the sea and oldest, and phase 5 is closest to the sea and youngest.

The Norwegian rock-art experts Helskog and Gjerde have suggested different chronologies for the rock carvings. The table below shows the two most recent suggestions for dating and division of phases/periods. All dates in the table are BC, unless otherwise noted.

Masl Gjerde 2010 Masl Helskog 2012
25,5-26 Period I: 5000-4800
22-26 Phase 1: 5200-4200 22-25 Period II: 4800-4000
17-21 Phase 2: 4200-3000 17-21 Period III: 4000-2700
14-17 Phase 3: 3000-2000 14-17 Period IV: 2700-1700
11-12,5 Phase 4: 1700-1200 11-12,5 Phase V: 1700-500
9-10 Phase 5: 1100-200 9-10 Period VI: 500-100 A.D

You may of course say that we haven’t really found out how old the figures are, merely how long it is since the rocks rose from the sea. That is true; we have no method for saying exactly how long it is since any given figure was made. Dating is absolute, i.e. we can connect it to a specific year or years, but the dating here is not that of the figures, but of the rock surface.