Tanum Rock Carvings, Bohuslän, Sweden
On the rock faces, they told their story. Simple images – basic by today’s standards – but each of them together paints a vivid picture of life for the ancient people here on the west coast of Sweden.
They weren’t painted, though, these snippets of Bronze Age culture. =
They were painstakingly carved into solid granite, probably with another hard rock because none of the metals available to these people would have been strong enough.
It was not an easy process and took time… but just a fraction of the time that the images have survived.
There are at least 1500 sites with these rock carvings across the Northern Bohuslän region of Sweden, each site with hundreds or thousands of images.
Do the maths very quickly and you’ll realise that means hundreds and thousands of rock carvings in a relatively small area. And, every year, new ones are discovered.
What was important to the Bronze Age people in West Sweden?
Well, the Tanum rock carvings give us the answer.
Weapons, hunting and rituals are all common themes. So are animals – and if you look for long enough you’ll be able to identify some of them. But the strongest motif across all the artworks is ships.
The land has changed in the 2000 years since the Tanum rock carvings were done. The water levels have dropped by almost 30 metres and previously unexposed land is where I’m now standing today.
But for these ancient people, the waterways that filled these valleys were the launching points for their maritime adventures.
One theory about the positions of the carvings is that they were created where ships began their journeys and were tributes or blessings to the people setting out on them.
Although the carvings are scattered across the region, the highest concentration is around the town of Tanum. A visitors centre just out of town called the Vitlycke Museum offers information and guided tours.
It’s here that I’m able to ask about the red paint, because it’s something that I didn’t quite understand.
“That paint has lasted well for the past 2000 years,” was my first thought. No… silly me.
In actual fact, the original carvings never had any paint. It was the groove in the stone, carved by hand, that was the artwork.
Some are just one or two millimetres deep while the more important images can be as deep as four centimetres. But they can be a little hard to see sometimes and there’s where the paint comes in.
It is the museum that has painted red a selection of images so that they are easier to identify.
Without it, I think it would be difficult to see many of the individual carvings and almost impossible to get a sense of the broader scenes that were created on the rock faces.
The closest artwork to the museum is called the Vitlycke panel and it has more than 500 images on the one rock face.
If you wander through the surrounding forest – crunching on the brown fallen pine needles beneath your feet – you don’t have to go far to find smaller rock faces with more carvings. Look carefully because they’re not all marked or painted!
Nearby – just five minutes of driving or so – are three other sites with a collection of rock carvings. They are called the Aspeberget, Litsleby and Fossum.
Although it’s not necessary to go to every single one (there are obvious similarities between each) it is definitely worth going to the Litsleby site.
It’s also known as the Spear God’s rock face and you’ll realise why pretty quickly. In the centre of a rock face, surrounded by lots of smaller images of boats and animals, is a carving of a man at least two metres high.
It is by far the largest of the carvings in the area and it’s thought that it probably represents the locals’ god of war.
Most of the theories about what these thousands of images mean are just that – theories. It’s unlikely anyone will ever know for sure.
The Bronze Age people of West Sweden are gone forever and will never be able to tell us. But look closely at these carvings, with their intricate depictions of daily life and religious rituals, and maybe the answer is in there somewhere.
They can still speak to us… through stone.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the West Sweden Tourist Board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.