If you are passing through Alta in northern Norway, a trip to the World Heritage Rock Art Centre is an absolute must. Here's what to expect at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This fascinating collection of petroglyphs far above the Arctic Circle show that people have lived in the area for several thousands of years.
In fact, there's more hunter-gatherer rock art here than anywhere else in northern Europe. This suggests that from 2,000 to 7,000 years ago, Alta was an important meeting place in the far north.
Despite the age of the engravings, we've actually only known about them for little more than 50 years. Rock art was first discovered in the area in 1950, but most of it wasn't found for another 20 years.
Visit a World Heritage Site in northern Norway
The site in Alta was confirmed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, following Bergen's Bryggen, Urnes Stave Church and Røros. Since then there have been several additions. Norway now has eight sites on the list, with several more candidates.
Specifically, the World Heritage Site consists of 4 sites around Alta. Three rock carving collections (Hjemmeluft, Kåfjord, Amtmannsnes and Storsteinen) and 1 site with rock paintings (Transfarelv) are included.
However, only Hjemmeluft is open to the public. That's because erosion and vandalism are potential threats to the carvings and paintings. Some of the other sites are kept covered to protect them.
Tours are self-guided by way of a map booklet or an audio guide that costs for an additional fee. A 45-minute guided tour can be reserved in advance, but the hefty additional cost means it’s best suited only for those with a serious interest in the field.
The outdoor carvings are accessible during the snow-free season (typically May to October) but the indoor exhibitions are open year-round.
A wooden pathway several miles long has been constructed to lead visitors around the otherwise boggy ground where the rock carvings are. The pathway is split into two loops. The shorter loop takes approximately 45 minutes, while you should allow 2-3 hours to fully explore the entire site.
Understanding a pre-historic society
The thousands of petroglyphs help us understand the environment along the Altafjord and the prehistoric human relationship with it.
Made between 2,000 and 7,000 years ago, many of the thousands of engravings indicate that Alta was a religious meeting place in the Stone Age. Artwork depicts scenes from days long gone, specifically hunting and gathering, fishing, rituals, and social occasions.
Many animals are depicted in the scenes, showing the importance of nature to the people of the time.
Why are some of the engravings red?
Many of the older carvings were painted red in the 1970s to make them more visible, which was normal practice at the time.
However, this process is now being reversed to preserve the authenticity of the art, even though some of the carvings will be harder to see on cloudy days. The outdoor exhibition is now split into sections, some with pigment and some without.
The discovery of the rock art
No-one knew about the substantial amount of petroglyphs hidden in plain sight until a local farmer ploughed a potato field in 1950. He discovered a large stone with a distinct engraving of a human-like figure.
Archaeologists dated the stone to somewhere around 4,000-5,000 years old. It was named ‘pippi' after the fictional Norwegian children's character Pippi Longstocking. She has plaits sticking out either side of her head, which resembled the engraving.
An indoor exhibition
A permanent indoor exhibition tells the story of the inaccessible carvings such as the Kåfjord panel, consisting of around 1,500 carvings including many of bears, suggesting that the animal had a special ritual significance to the local people.
The Kåfjord art is carved into basaltic tuff, a very soft rock that is at high risk of erosion, so the carvings are permanently covered and the exhibition at the museum is the only way to see what lies underneath.
If you can't visit Alta in person, there's more to see online. You can explore the site using the Digital Rock Art Archive at www.altarockart.no.
Elsewhere in Alta
If you are thinking about a trip, there's plenty more to see in the area. Downtown Alta is largely useful only for accommodation, shopping and restaurants. The one main exception is the Northern Lights Cathedral, notable for its unique architecture and striking interior.
In the nearby area, the Tirpitz museum and Alta Canyon are big attractions, although the latter involves a substantial hike. Kåfjord church is worth a stop, although it's not generally open for visitors.
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