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Friday, 1 September, 2000, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Pollution threatens prehistoric carvings
carvings general view
The Alta carvings are a Unesco world heritage site
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby in Alta, northern Norway

Norwegian scientists are working on the best way to protect ancient rock carvings against the ravages of modern pollution.

The oldest of the carvings, just outside the town of Alta in the Arctic, date from about 6,000 years ago.

They were discovered in 1973, after millennia buried under earth and vegetation.

But they are already believed to be at risk of deterioration from the effects of atmospheric pollution.

The manager of the Alta Museum, responsible for the care of the carvings, is Hans-Christian Soeborg, an archaeologist.

Experiments

He told BBC News Online: "Pollution today is all-pervasive. There are a lot of pollutants coming from Russian factories close to the Norwegian border, though the prevailing westerly winds usually carry them away from us.

"But we do get emissions from power stations and industry in the United Kingdom, and we know they are damaging some of the medieval buildings in southern Norway.

"We are experimenting with protective covers of different thicknesses to see what will be the best way to make sure the carvings stay safe."

There are more rock carvings in Alta than anywhere else in northern Europe, a total of about 3,000 individual figures.

Land rise

They depict people, animals, including reindeer, bears, elk, fish, birds, and boats and weapons.

Some carvings appear to show hunting scenes, and others are thought to represent musicians holding instruments like the "runebommen", the shamanic drum used in rituals by the Sami people of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia.

The entire site was placed on Unesco's World Heritage List in 1985. It lies at the head of the Alta fjord, at Jiepmaluokta, a Sami word meaning "seal bay".

carvings and fjord
The site is now well above sea level
When the first carvings were cut into the rock the sea level was between eight and twenty-six metres higher than today, and the climate much milder, more like modern southern Norway's.

But the land rose as the north European icecap withdrew, exposing new rock surfaces to the carvers.

Their work is believed to fall into four distinct phases, from the earliest markings 6,000 years ago to the most recent, just 500 years before the birth of Christ.

While the significance of many of the individual carvings seems clear, archaeologists are still uncertain of the meaning of some of the groups, and of the site as a whole.

The carvings were probably meant partly to bring good luck to the hunters and to give them power over their prey.

Meaning obscure

Beyond that, though, they may well have served a religious purpose as part of the ritual of the Stone Age people of the area.

They may have been an essay in cosmology, an attempt to place humans and the natural world in their proper context and to link them to worlds beyond.

But it may be wrong to try to wring meaning out of every carving and every rock face, Hans-Christian Soeborg warns.

"The life-style and the artefacts of these people were so different from our own that there is no reason to think we should recognise everything they chose to depict."

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