The Rock Art of Alta

Alta has Northern Europe’s largest concentration of rock art made by hunter- gatherers. The Rock art comprises both rock carvings and rock paintings made from 7000 to 2000 years ago. The rock art in Alta was inscribed into UNESCO’s World Heritage List on 3rd December 1985 as the only prehistoric monument in Norway. The World Heritage Site in Alta consists of 4 sites with rock carvings (Hjemmeluft, Kåfjord, Amtmannsnes and Storsteinen) and 1 site with rock paintings (Transfarelv).

Ole Pedersen 9 Photo: Karin Tansem

All of these sites are at the head of the Altafjord, and it is only 15 kms as the crow flies between the westernmost and easternmost sites. When the rock art was inscribed into the World Heritage List, the number of figures was estimated to be over 3000. Today that number has doubled, with approx. 6000 registered figures. Of these, the rock paintings make up only ten panels, with altogether 50 figures. In other words the main group of figures are rock carvings, and Hjemmeluft, where the World Heritage Rock Art Centre - Alta Museum is located, is the largest area.

This is the only area which has been made accessible to the public.

The rock art in Alta is an important archaeological source of material which gives us a unique insight into people’s thoughts and rituals, social organisation, technology and use of resources. Rock art is very diverse, sometimes with large scenes depicting people and animals in various activities, such as hunting, trapping and fishing, rituals and communication. Rock art gives us an insight into real-life events, myths and legends. The figures portrayed are people, reindeer, elks (US “moose”), bears, dogs/wolves, foxes, hares, geese, ducks, swans, cormorants, halibut, salmon, whales, boats, implements and other artefacts, and various geometric patterns and shapes. The rock art in Alta was closely connected to the landscape and what happened to it as a result of land upheaval. There is broad agreement among researchers that the rock carvings in Alta were made on the smooth rock surfaces at the water’s edge. As the land gradually rose, and new rock surfaces came to light, the artists made use of these for their carvings. The oldest scenes are therefore high above present sea levels, whilst the later ones are lower down in the terrain.  It is uncertain whether the rock paintings had the same close connection with the sea and the shoreline as the rock carvings.  Based on the rock carvings’ height above sea level, we can divide them into different chronological phases that can be dated to the period from c 5000BC to the birth of Christ.