Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Petroglyphs in Russia, an Incredible Discovery.

Just about anyone has seen some form of glyph before.  Whether it be the hieroglyphs seen in the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharohs, or the pictographs left behind by commonly labeled "cavemen" of the past.  In 2005 however, a collected group of Archaeologists both Russian and foreign alike, led by Norwegian Jan Magne Gjerde of the Tromsø University Museum, took part in recovering what may be the oldest known form of petroglyphs (drawings etched into stone via tools) within the vast forest regions of Russia.  During the little time the work team had to uncover and record the petroglyphs, the grand total number of them had risen from 200 to over 1000.

The region in which the four sites of the petroglyphs were uncovered is lake Kanozero, as described by Gjerde in an article written in ScienceNordic by Hanne Jakobsen:

“Petroglyphs are found at four sites in the area − on three islands and on a stone block on the lakeshore. The oldest ones date to between  5,000 and 6,000 years old” (qtd. Hanne).

These petroglyphs are not simple images though, like what one might be used to seeing.  A majority of them were full detailed and sequenced, like that of a cartoon.

The picture to the left is one of the finer examples of such petroglyphs.  Gjerde describes the piece to Hanne, who recounts it in the article:

"He describes in detail a hunter who is heading uphill on skis and tracking a bear. The ski tracks are just as one would expect for someone going up a slope with a good distance between the strides. The hunter then gets his feet together, skis down a slope, stops, removes his skis, takes four steps – and plunges his spear into the bear" (Hanne).

I myself find the depiction equally remarkable in its quality.  Certainly I have not seen similar images as accurate in detail before.  It makes me ponder if the creator of such images was attempting to be precise, or if it was just a result of the intricate process of etching the image into stone.

Uncovering and documenting the vast array of petroglyphs was not an easy task, as the article surely indicates both in words and photos. 

As the image above clearly shows, much of the petroglyphs were still hidden beneath layers of sod.   Much of the ten days spent by the work team at the site consisted of removing the sod and washing the surface of the stone slabs carefully.  I can only imagine the difficulty in doing such work, but it showcases the collaborative efforts a team of archaeologists can put forth for a common goal.

This image was taken during the documentation process of the sites.  You can see Jan Gjerde working on one of the countless petroglyphs.  As you can probably tell, he is not sitting directly on the stone itself.  In order to document these petroglphs, the work team spread out large plastic sheets over the stone surface, tracing the petroglyphs with felt pens after highlighting them previously with chalk before placing the plastic sheets.

Gjerde admits that it was frustrating work, especially when it rained, as Hanne describes:

“Actually I didn’t have enough plastic sheeting with me because I had only expected 200 petroglyphs, not a thousand. It was pretty frustrating at times and I used all my clothes and everything I had of paper to dry off the plastic"  (qtd. in Hanne).

The petroglyphs do not just depict land-based hunting and living tales either.  As this image below shows, the people who etched these images were also hunters of the sea, most likely hunting Beluga whales in the White Sea.

Mind you, there is three sheets together depicting this whale hunt, each sheet is a meter wide, making the whole image three meters long.  Quite a spectacular sight it must be to see in person.

Gjerde remarks about the lifestyle that the creators of these petroglyphs must have lived.

“Look for instance at this whale,” he says. “It’s over a metre long and the entire figure is hewn out in full depth. This says something about the lifestyle of the people who made the carvings. It must have been a fairly rich society because to make such grand petroglyphs you need your share of leisure time"  (qtd. in Hanne).

This remark strikes me as somewhat controversial.  How could such people who spent so much leisure time etching these images be skilled at hunting such mammoth beasts?  Was the population large, or was the hunting done in shifts?  Perhaps those questions will never be answered.

In the end, this discovery is truly remarkable in both its scale and the effort put forth by the work team to document it.  For Jan Gjerde, it was a lifetime achievement, which he comments in the article in two separate ways:

“I still get chills up my spine when I talk about it because it was such an emotional experience finding these carvings,” says Gjerde. “No matter how much I explore over the next 50 years, chances are close to zero that I’ll ever find anything comparable" ( qtd. in Hanne).

“These people, at this spot, documented part of their lives and I was fortunate to be one of the first people in 5,000 years to see it,” (qtd. in Hanne).

True words of the joy of archaeology indeed.

 Hanne Jakobsen. "Remarkable Russian Petroglyphs."  pasthorizonspr.com.  Past Horizons Magazine.  18 March. 2012 Web. 27 March. 2012.


  1. Your pictures did not show on the blog, but I saw a few when I Google searched. Very interesting. I too was intrigued by the amount of time these people must have spent carefully carving these huge illustrations. It is too bad we do not know more about population etc. of this society. It would help solve the mystery of the time. If it was a small group then maybe killing a whale provided enough food to take a break from hunting. On the other hand, if it was a large population, maybe the hunting was done by another group. Maybe this society had specializations and there was a whole group of artist who were enlisted to document their hunting ventures? As you said, we may never know.
    It is amazing how well these petroglyphs have survived. From some of the pictures on Google, they look to be out in the elements, exposed to everything. It is a wonder they were worn away in those 5,000 years! In addition, the sheer number of them is incredible too. There must have been generations of people making these large scenes. It would have been great too to find the tools they used for the carving. I would guess they had pretty advanced and specialized tools for creating the petroglyphs. But again, it looks like these were out in the elements so I am not surprised they did not find tools. Ah, the things we wish we could know!

  2. Nice Blog. This was a very interesting post to read. This site must have been a fascinating find. You raise several interesting questions. I liked the post about them being very artistic and great warriors. These pictographs most have been a lot more significant to the people who built them then we are gifting them credit for. If these pictographs are as old as they are placing them at, the technology at the time would have been minimal. To carve something into a rock as artistically as they did, it must have taken a very long time to do. I feel as though to put something like the image of them hunting a mammoth into rock, that the hunt must have been a major event for those people; something that saved their clan and was remembered for years to come. It’s crazy that it took this long to find it. It goes to show how little we know about our past. These people had a monument my making the first pictographs and nobody ever know about it until not long ago. Its slightly Ironic that considering the effect it went to preserve this story for future generations to come, that it took so long to find.

  3. I must agree with the above comments, this is a very nice post. It captures very well the excitement and frustration of archaeological findings, of getting more than was expected. I found it fascinating that the hieroglyphs formed sequential stories, as you said like “cartoons”, now all they need is a gramophone playing a delightfully loony tune to accompany the hunter skiing up and down the hill to kill the bear. Then the bear has an anvil or a stick of dynamite or some such other gag it uses to thwart the hunter, starting the chase all over again. All joking aside, it is perplexing that the lives of hunters would allow for crafts of such high caliber. One of my history professors once said that art and architecture in cold environments were of a much lower priority than survival, which might indicate that these hieroglyphs were carved in shifts, by those who dedicated themselves to crafting instead of hunting, or perhaps they were carved by women. As you say, we will probably never know.

    I am curious what will be done with these images now that they are once again exposed to the elements. Are there plans to construct an edifice that will house them, protect them, and allow people to view them? If that is not the case, will these crafts be left under the plastic sheets until such provisions are made for them? This is very interesting indeed. I look forward to your following posts, and will consider the steppes of Eurasia for my next blog, as you suggested.