LATE IN AN EVENING in 1973, a father and his son far north of the Arctic Circle were walking home along the coast near Alta in Norway. Suddenly, in the soft, slanting light of the midnight sun, they saw ice-polished slopes of granite come alive with images of animals and humans. They had happened upon rock carvings that have since provided archaeologists with tantalizing glimpses of the life and lore of Stone Age people.
There are more than 3,000 of these petroglyphs, and additional ones are discovered each year. They offer a magic mirror of the distant past-a look at life thousands of years ago when animals were the center of the human world. People hunted these beasts, ate them, worshipped them, and with infinite patience and primitive tools, chiseled their images onto a record for time.
Since the discovery, archaeologists have cleaned the sloping granite rocks and removed accumulated plant cover from nearby rock faces. What they've found has helped them to understand ancient cultures, but the news isn't all good. The carvings, which are dated by measuring the age of shoreline displacement of the carved rocks, now face a modern-day peril: air pollution.
Alta, less than 200 miles from the northernmost point of Europe, was probably the holiest place in the North. "This was a sacred site for more than 4,000 years," says Karin Tansem, former curator of the Alta Museum, built near the petroglyph-covered rocks. "The first carvings were made about 7,000 years ago, but for unknown reasons, all carving ceased about 500 B.C."
Fourteen thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, this region of Norway, called Finnmark, was covered by mile-thick ice caps. As the ice melted in the waning millennia of the Ice Age, the land, freed from this enormous burden, began to rise. As the ice left, people arrived in this game-rich, fish-rich region, the first settling in simple sod huts and tents made of fur about 10,000 years ago. Inland they were hunter- gatherers, with reindeer and elk (the European moose) as their main prey. Along the coast they fished, mainly for abundant cod.
About 7,000 years ago, probably prompted by a powerful religio- supernatural need and possibly guided by inspired shamans, the people began to record on rock the animals of their world. To make the glyphs, the ancient carvers used chisels, probably of hard, fine-grained quartzite, which they struck with hammers of stone or antler, each blow chipping out one small stone flake. The artists first outlined a figure and then, with immense patience and labor, pecked out the entire form. They may well have rubbed and colored the finished engravings with the earth pigment ocher, used by other rock painters, and today archaeologists have carefully traced the most important glyphs with a similarly colored, reddish paint to make them more visible.
The hunting and capture scenes are easiest to understand. One rock panel with 180 figures shows reindeer being herded into a pound or corral made of wooden stakes. The method was later used extensively by the Saami (Lapps), many Siberian tribes and some northern Indian tribes well into the twentieth century.
Another group of glyphs depicts hunters spearing swimming reindeer from open boats. The technique was the same employed until the 1950s by Canada's Inuit. Using kayaks, the Inuit speared swimming caribou at traditional river sites where for untold generations migrating caribou had always crossed and the hunters had waited.
If the physical reality of the animals and of the hunting scenes can be understood, any religious meaning of the images remains largely inscrutable. …