In the Berg area of Verdal (Nord-Trøndelag county, Norway), figures spanning multiple time periods were carved into the rock in the same manner as the more familiar Bardal carvings (Nordland county, Norway). The oldest carvings depict realistic moose. (Photo: Fredrik Gaustad / NTNU University Museum)

Ancient Trønder people carved exceptional petroglyphs

Only a few of the Stone Age rock carvings in Norway depict animals in a naturalistic way. Four of them are located around the Trondheimsfjord.

The best known and most abundant Norwegian petroglyphs are stylized depictions of boats, animals and humans. But many of the very first people who began to scratch their pictures into the rock drew realistically. They drew animals that closely resembled the living models, both in size and shape, and they reproduced the animals’ movements. Stone Age people were often good artists.

Very few naturalistic carvings exist in Norway, but four such areas are located around the Trondheimsfjord. Each of the large fjord basins that form the Trondheimsfjord has an area with large naturalistic petroglyphs. These carvings tell many stories that reflect changes in their lifestyle.

Trønder people settle down

“These rock carvings were probably the first to be made in the region. They were created at a time when groups of hunters were shifting inland from the coast. The people moved between seasonal encampments, fishing areas and hunting spots,” says Kalle Sognnes, a Professor Emeritus at NTNU.

At this time, hunters appear to have gradually stayed longer and longer in some encampments, indicating that they were transitioning to more permanent settlements. Nomadic life continued, but the way of life was becoming more tied to specific territories. Stone Age people started to utilize more resources, and reduced their need to move around to acquire food. Moose and caribou hunting were probably an important resource.

“These first carvings are indicators that the countryside around the Trondheimsfjord was now being more consistently used. The petroglyphs suggest that these early humans were beginning to look at the land in a different way than before, maybe experiencing it more as a “home.” This landscape of the ancient Trønder people emerges a few thousand years later as the Trøndelag landscape,” says Sognnes.

Realistic animal movement

One of the four petroglyph areas stands out. It can be found near Trondheim, at the small farm “Stykket” in Fosen, where more lifelike moose are carved into the rock. “The carvings at the farm are outstanding,” says Sognnes.

Elgen som snur hodet mot resten av flokken, er svært spesiell i norsk sammenheng. Det er funnet kun to helleristninger med dyr som snur seg. Denne elgen på Stykket på Fosen er den ene.  Foto: Kalle Sognnes/NTNU

The moose that is turning its head towards the rest of the herd is very special. Only two petroglyphs with animals turning their heads exist in Norway, with this moose at Fosen, near Trondheim, being one of them. (Photo: Kalle Sognnes / NTNU)

As he describes them, the dominant figure consists of the large head and neck of a moose drawn at least full size. The neck is bent so that the head is facing downwards. The rest of the animal is missing, and he supposes that the drawing wasn’t completed. Just below this are two legs, but these do not fit anatomically with the head and probably belong to another animal.

Just to the right we find two smaller moose, partly drawn over each other. The smaller one is of greater interest. The animal is facing to the right, but the head is bent back so that it is looking in the same direction as the other animals. Another small moose is turned in the opposite direction, towards the other figures.

“Carved animals are most commonly found standing still and seen from the side, with one foreleg and one hind leg. Because of this, they often seem stiff and without signs of movement, whereas the two freestanding legs in this carving belong to an animal that is in motion. And although the animal with its turned head is standing still, the head shows that this moose is moving, says Kalle Sognnes.

Only one other petroglyph area in Tysfjord, Norway is known to have carvings that depict animals with their heads turned.

Tucked into villa gardens

The carvings in Fosen are also special because they have been drawn so realistically. The animals’ outlines pop out distinctly. These petroglyphs are rare in Norway, and only occur in a few places, mostly in the northern part of Nordland county.

“However, Trøndelag county also boasts four areas with large, realistic carvings. The area at Berg in Verdal municipality can probably claim the most rock engravings of this type, but because of their location within several villa gardens they have never been studied in their entirety. Many surprises are hidden in the ground here,” says Sognnes. Several such carvings are in the middle of a housing development, but they were unfortunately discovered only after the houses were built.

Layered petroglyphs

The next area is found on Bardal on the north side of Beitstadfjorden, which today forms the innermost basin in Trondheimsfjord.

Bølareinen ved Snåsavatnet er den mest kjente av de rundt 30 figurene som er avdekket i området. Elg, jerv, bjørn, sjøfugl og skiløper er andre motiv på Bølafeltet. Foto: Kalle Sognnes/NTNU

The Bøla reindeer near Snåsavatnet is the most famous of the 30-plus figures that have been discovered in the area. Moose, wolverines, bears, seabirds, and skiers are other motifs in the Bøla area.(Photo: Kalle Sognnes / NTNU)

According to Sognnes, the Bardal area, which has been known since the 1890s, is one of the largest and most interesting petroglyph regions in Trøndelag. Petroglyphs were carved in this area over several thousand years, starting in 4000-3000 BCE and continuing to the beginning of the Common Era. Many of the later rock engravings were carved over the earlier ones. Large boat images from the Early Bronze Age were carved directly across some of the large animal figures on the rock, which all seem to depict moose.

Bøla reindeer is best-known engraving

The fourth area is right by Snåsavatnet (Snåsa lake), near the town of Steinkjer. Here we find the most famous of all such carvings: Bølareinen, or the Bøla reindeer, which has been known since the beginning of 1840s. Until about 2000 BCE Snåsavatnet formed the innermost basin in Trondheimsfjord, separated from Beitstadfjorden by a long and narrow strait.

These four petroglyph areas around the Trondheimsfjord vividly portray the transition from nomadic hunting culture to more permanent settlements, and they tell us that this happened quite early on. They carvings also show that Stone Age people had a realistic mode of expression and that they had great artistic abilities.

This article is based on a feature story by Kalle Sognnes.