Covering rock carvings and applying ethanol treatments was first tested in Alta, where this picture was taken. The method was later applied in Central Norway as well. Photo: Nina Tveter, NTNU

Uncertain future for rock art in Norway

Regular protective treatment of rock carvings and paintings has done a good job protecting this important part of Norway’s cultural heritage. But according to the current schedule, the unique programme will end next year.

A unique programme to save petroglyphs in Norway started 15 years ago. This programme is scheduled to end next year.

Researchers are hoping that the programme’s positive results are enough to ensure that the work can be continued.

University museums and county municipalities have been treating and taking care of rock art sites for several years by covering them and treating them with ethanol.

Funding through the Directorate for Cultural Heritage’s BERG conservation programme for rock art has been provided to document rock carvings (petroglyphs), rock paintings and cave paintings (pictographs). BERG has also made it possible to draw up management plans and regularly scheduled management in several places.

Hoping work can continue

“The results of the regular covering and ethanol treatments have been only positive for the condition of the sites. Not only have we managed to remove all the micro-vegetation from a number of them, but we’ve also successfully maintained them in this condition by following up regularly,” says archaeologist Lindgaard.

Lindgaard has directed NTNU’s Department of Archaeology and Cultural History’s participation in the BERG programme.

The Bardal 1B petroglyph site in Steinkjer municipality being ethanol-treated and covered in 2010. Photo: Eva Lindgaard, NTNU University Museum

Department head Bernt Rundberget adds that a key question now is how these sites will be managed in the future, since this rock art programme is scheduled to end next year.

“The projects related to documentation, security and facilitation have yielded very good results. Our collaboration with the county municipalities and the former rock art museum (Bergkunstmuseet) at Stiklestad National Culture Centre has also been important and good. We’d really like to see the conservation programme continue, preferably with more emphasis on collecting and caring for the knowledge. It’s important not to lose the enormous efforts that have been made over 15 years,” says Rundberget.

The archaeologists can point to excellent results when it comes to managing rock art in central Norway. The top photo shows the figures as they appeared in 2005, the bottom photo as the art appeared in 2012. These petroglyphs are at Strand in Osen municipality. Photo: Eva Lindgaard, NTNU University Museum

Petroglyph sites were overgrown

The first phase of the rock art project lasted from 1995 to 2005 and investigated the condition of a number of petroglyph sites in Norway. Most of the sites that were recorded were covered in vegetation and the figures were difficult, if not impossible, to detect.

“Sites that had been accessible to the public for decades were also overgrown. Even in places where we cleaned up figures that we were adding to the registry, it didn’t take many months before the sites were covered by crustose lichen, moss and algae again,” says Lindgaard.

Research on certain types of lichens also showed how lichen roots attacked the rock surfaces, both mechanically and chemically.

Inspired by Alta

The researchers started by primarily registering the condition of the rock art they investigated, and then began implementing measures to improve their condition.

Covering the art and ethanol treatments had already been tested on petroglyph sites in Alta municipality in far northern Norway, and the method was adopted in central Norway.

“The method involved spraying petroglyph sites with ethanol, i.e. alcohol, and then covering the rock surface with construction foil. Then we laid down PVC cloth with a built-in insulation mat and sandbags on top. We began covering sites in central Norway in 2004, first at Holtås in Levanger municipality and in subsequent years at various petroglyph sites throughout the region,” Lindgaard said.

“Since 2005, we’ve been covering and applying ethanol treatments at these sites almost every year. On sites where management was interrupted for short periods, the micro-vegetation returned quickly,” the archaeologist says.

The photos show the rock art site at Holtås in Levanger municipality: left, before covering in 2004, and right, the same rock surface after regular covering and ethanol treatment over several years. Photo: Roar Sæterhaug, NTNU University Museum 2004 and Eva Lindgaard, NTNU University Museum 2011

Dropped the alcohol

At two sites in central Norway (Bogge and Nesset, in Møre og Romsdal County), the archaeologists experimented with using the covering without the ethanol treatment.

The archaeologists found that covering without the ethanol treatment does not have the same effect. Covering the area so photosynthesis does not occur plus using ethanol to prevent micro-vegetation has proved to be the most effective method.

“Covering has produced good results. Not only has the method proved to be very effective, but by securing funding and the possibility of implementing consistent measures, we managed to maintain a number of petroglyph sites in good condition,” Lindgaard says.

She notes that it has become clear that simply making sites accessible is not enough to ensure they remain in good condition, but that building up an organizational plan that includes regular management has enabled them to achieve that goal thus far.

Archaeological reports on petroglyph treatments from the NTNU University Museum (in Norwegian)