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Husbyasen, Stjordal - petroglyphs Photo: Tove Eivindsen/NTNU MuseumHusbyåsen, Stjørdal - petroglyphs Photo: Tove Eivindsen/NTNU Museum

Norway’s secret petroglyphs


It looked to be a routine excavation of what was thought to be a burial mound. But beneath the mound, archaeologists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Museum of Natural History and Archaeology found something more: unusual Bronze Age petroglyphs. 

“We believe these are very special in a Norwegian context,” says museum researcher and project manager Anne Haug.

Location map of site

Location map of site

The excavation in Stjørdal, just north of Trondheim, was necessitated by the expansion of a gravel pit. Initially the project archaeologists anticipated that the dig would be uncomplicated, and museum researchers allowed just three weeks for completion of the works.

Petroglyphs under a cremation site

Then came the surprises. Firstly, the mound builders had used an existing hill as a starting point – which of course saved them time and effort.  The hill made the burial mound appear even larger and more monumental than it might have otherwise been.

But researchers suspected there might be another reason for the choice of the hilltop when they uncovered the remains of two cremations, or rather a burnt layer that contained fragments of bone. Underneath this they found petroglyphs, including eight drawings showing the soles of feet, with cross hatching and five shallow depressions. Two boat drawings and several other drawings of feet soles with toes were also found just south of the burial mound.

Link between burial mound and drawings unclear

Footprint petroglyphs were found in a burial mound in Stjørdal, central Norway. Photo credit: Anne Haug, NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology

Footprint petroglyphs were found in a burial mound in Stjørdal, central Norway. Photo credit: Anne Haug, NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology

“This is a special discovery, and we are not aware of other similar  findings from Trøndelag County,” Haug says. “The tomb might have been deliberately constructed over the petroglyphs as part of funeral ritual.  Based on the type of petroglyphs and especially the drawings of the foot soles, we have dated the artwork to the Bronze Age, about 1800 – 500 BCE.”

“Why there are foot sole drawings beneath the tomb is a puzzle. But if we interpret the find in terms of a fertility cult, it may be that the soles represent God and life-giving power. That means that you can have both life and death represented in one place,” she says.

Unique in a Norwegian context

Haug says that there was a similar discovery in Østlandet, an area called Jong in Bærum, where petroglyphs illustrating foot soles were found under a tomb that dated back to the Bronze Age. In a Nordic context, this phenomenon is more common, and there are several examples where burials were combined with rock art, particularly petroglyphs of foot soles from Bohuslän, a World Heritage site in Sweden.

Petroglyphs were found in a burial mound in Stjørdal, central Norway. Photo credit: Anne Haug, NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology

Petroglyphs were found in a burial mound in Stjørdal, central Norway. Photo credit: Anne Haug, NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology

Currently it is not yet clear if the grave was put in place roughly contemporary to the petroglyphs. The dig began in September, 2010 and extended through to the end of October, but the analysis is still ongoing.

The archaeologists found about 900 grams of burned bone, from one or more individuals; they hope to be able to carry out C-14 dating of the material and conduct more analyses so they can determine more about the gender and the age of the individuals in the grave.

“Currently, we have found several human teeth, as well as what may be remains of human ribs. We also found an animal tooth that suggests that one or more animals may have been laid in the tomb along with whoever is buried there,” she says.

There were very few objects found in the tomb, but a flat corroded metal object was found in the burnt layer. It’s identification is difficult, but the object will be X-rayed for analysis.

Remains of a larger burial ground?

It is also unclear whether the original burial site contained two grave mounds, or whether there was just one large burial area.

A burial ground in the area was first described in 1818 by Lorentz D. Klüwer, and archaeologist Karl Rygh also described the site in 1879. It is likely that the graves that have been excavated in the most recent dig are the last remains of this burial ground.

The rock art found at the site is a type called “South Scandinavian agriculture carving” and is dated to the Bronze Age, from 1800 – 500 BCE while the tomb dates to the transition between the Bronze Age and Iron Age,  between 500 – 400 BCE.

Rock Art from Alta, Norway Photo: Ingwii, Flickr

Rock Art from Alta, Norway Photo: Ingwii, Flickr

Learn more:

More Information about Scandinavian Rock Art

  • Knut Helskog and Bjørnar Olsen, eds., Perceiving Rock Art: Social and Political Perspectives (1966).
  • J-P Taavitsainen, Recent Rock-Painting Finds in Finland, Bolletino del Centro di Studi Preistorici 16 (1977)
  • Mats P. Malmer, A Chronological Study of North European Rock Art (1981).
  • Klavs Randsborg, Kivik: Archaeology and Iconography, Acta Archaeologica 64 (1993)

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