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12 April 2008
Finnish rock art from 5,000 years ago

The Astuvansalmi rock paintings are located on a steep outcrop, on the shore of lake Yövesi (Finland). The site may have been used for ceremonial purposes. Rock paintings created during the Stone Age can still be seen today in dozens of sites around Finland. These awe-inspiring artworks are like windows into the ancient past, revealing tantalising glimpses of long lost cultures.
     Finland's rock paintings mainly consist of brownish-red figures and markings painted onto steep granite walls, often overlooking waterways. Scenes feature people, boats, elk, fish and mysterious partly human figures that may be linked to shamanistic beliefs, as well as more abstract shapes and patterns whose meanings will probably remain forever lost in the mists of time. "So far we know of 127 sites in Finland where such paintings have been found," explains archaeologist Helena Taskinen of the National Board of Antiquities. "These paintings have survived thanks to the formation of a thin layer of silicon dioxide on the rock surface, which has protected them. Many more paintings have undoubtedly vanished over the intervening millennia, but it's also likely that more paintings are still out there in the forests waiting to be discovered." 
     Experts believe the paintings were made by people from the 'Comb Ceramic Culture', who lived in what is now Finland between 5000 BCE and 2000 BCE. They made their paints using iron oxide obtained from the soil, probably mixed with blood, animal fat or egg, although traces of these organic materials are no longer detectable. "The paintings were made by skilled artists, especially since some may have been painted from boats," Taskinen adds.
     The first Stone Age rock paintings to be recognised in Finland were reported to the authorities in 1911 by a certain Jean Sibelius, whose eye was caught by strange patterns on a lakeside cliff near Hvitträsk. Ancient rock carvings with a strikingly similar pattern have been found in faraway Norway, suggesting some cultural link between people from these distant locations. Another set of paintings was discovered in the 1960s on a rocky lakeshore just a few miles west of Hvitträsk at Juusjärvi. At first the local cottage owners thought the paintings were recent graffiti daubed on the rock by workmen, but they were soon realised to be several thousand years old. In spite of their age, the paintings on the cliffs of Juusjärvi still seem full of life. Two figures look as if they are dancing together cross-legged. A smaller character above them has a strange bird-like head. Below them a large fish is approaching a man who may have just fallen into the water; while to the right, a line of elk-like animals seem to be climbing up the cliff. The paintings also include the handprints of the artist – a touch that seems to reach out through time to anyone looking at the scene today.
     Most of Finland's rock paintings lie in the Saimaa Lake District. The best-known site, at Astuvansalmi, has been proposed for UNESCO's world heritage list. Subjects include a human figure with antlers, and elk or reindeer marked with spots showing the location of the animals' hearts, as if to aid hunters. The cliffs at Astuvansalmi have a profile that resembles a giant human face, and dainty amber pendants apparently carved into the shape of a head have been found by archaeologists beneath the cliffs. Another well publicised and accessible site, in the Hossa Hiking Area, features freakish figures with triangular heads. But at most sites the authorities make no attempt to attract tourists, especially where paintings lie near private homes or hazardous cliffs. Visitors are urged not to touch the paintings, to ensure that art-lovers from future generations will also be able to enjoy these unique works from long ago.

Source: Helsinki Times (31 March 2008)

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