Archaeologists in Sweden have unearthed approximately 40 petroglyphs on a rocky hillside in Tanum. These ancient rock carvings, dating back around 2,700 years, offer valuable insights into the lives of the region’s ancient inhabitants.
Tanum is located on the Sweden’s western coast, bordering Norway. It is known for the Tanum UNESCO World Heritage Site, featuring ancient rock carvings from the Bronze Age. The municipality is 140 kilometers (87 mi) north of Gothenburg and 170 kilometers (106 mi) south of Oslo.
The petroglyphs were found near the municipality of Tanum on Sweden’s western coastline. (This area is already renowned for its ancient rock carvings, including the celebrated Bronze Age art.) While searching for new petroglyphs, the researchers stumbled upon a moss-covered rock face that exhibited signs of human craftsmanship upon closer inspection. With great excitement, they carefully removed the moss, revealing a stunning collection of petroglyphs etched into the granite rock face.
The petroglyphs depict a diverse range of imagery, featuring ships, people, and various animal figures, such as horses. The largest carving portrays an impressive 4-meter (13-foot) long ship, while others measure between 30 and 40 centimeters (12 to 16 inches) in length.1
The ancient artists most likely created these masterpieces by striking hard stones against the rock face, revealing a distinct white layer underneath, making the carvings highly visible even from a distance.
The unique location of the petroglyphs on a nearly vertical outcrop adds to their significance. To study them, the researchers had to construct a platform, as the rock face was inaccessible by traditional means. From this platform, they meticulously examined the intricate details of the petroglyphs, aiming to unravel their mysteries and gain insights into the ancient culture that produced them.
Beyond their artistic merit, the petroglyphs provide a valuable window into the lives and activities of the ancient inhabitants of Bohuslän. While the exact purpose of the carvings remains uncertain, one theory suggests they may have served as markers of ownership. These rock carvings showcase a vibrant maritime culture that thrived nearly 2,700 years ago.
Experts believe that the petroglyphs were created during the seventh or eighth centuries BC. At that time, the rock face would have been located on the edge of an island, serving as a prominent landmark visible to passing ships. (The surrounding of the rock is an ancient seabed.) The abundance of ship depictions suggests that boats played a vital role in the lives of the ancient carvers, facilitating their exploration and travel between the island and the Swedish mainland.
The discovery of the petroglyphs not only expands the known repertoire of rock art in Bohuslän but also establishes valuable contextual connections to the existing body of work. The stylistic similarities between these newly discovered carvings and those at the Tanum site, which were carved between approximately 1,700 BC and 500 BC, suggest continuity in artistic expression.2
According to the researchers, protection of the petroglyphs are of paramount importance. Researchers will employ innovative methods to document and study the carvings without causing harm. Through meticulous analysis and comparison with other rock art sites, experts hope to gain deeper insights into the ancient culture and the significance of these carvings within the broader societal framework.
Tanum during the Bronze Age
During the Bronze Age, the city of Tanum flourished as a center of historical, cultural, and geographical significance. Situated on the western coast of Sweden, Tanum’s coastal location played a pivotal role in its prosperity, facilitating trade, communication, and artistic expression. Spanning from 1800 to 500 BCE, this era witnessed notable advancements in metallurgy, social complexity, and cultural interactions.
Geographically, Tanum’s proximity to the Skagerrak Sea provided its residents with access to vital maritime resources. This coastal advantage stimulated trade and fostered connections with neighboring regions. Tanum’s coastal setting also influenced its cultural and religious practices, as evidenced by the captivating rock carvings found throughout the area.
The rock carvings of Tanum, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are renowned for their significance in understanding the city’s historical and cultural fabric. These intricate carvings, dating back to the Bronze Age, depict diverse subjects such as boats, animals, and human figures.3 They exemplify the artistic prowess and cultural beliefs of Tanum’s inhabitants during this period.
Artistically, the rock carvings in Tanum showcase the exceptional creativity and craftsmanship of the ancient society. Despite using rudimentary tools, the artisans achieved remarkable levels of detail, highlighting their skill and ingenuity. The motifs and symbols portrayed in the carvings provide a visual narrative of the city’s cultural, religious, and social aspects.
Culturally, Tanum thrived as a vibrant and interconnected city during the Bronze Age. The rock carvings offer glimpses into the inhabitants’ beliefs and rituals, shedding light on their spiritual practices and understanding of celestial cycles. Symbolism associated with solar motifs, fertility, and celestial bodies reveals a reverence for natural forces. Additionally, the presence of animal depictions suggests their cultural and spiritual significance within Tanum’s society.
Tanum’s historical significance extends beyond its rock carvings. Archaeological findings, such as burial mounds and settlements, indicate a well-structured and organized society. These discoveries emphasize the importance of ancestral worship and community cohesion, offering valuable insights into the social dynamics of Bronze Age Tanum.
- Live Science, Owen JARUS, livescience.com, May 30, 2023
- Ancient Origins, Nathan FALDE, ancient-origins.net, updated May 20, 2023
- “Elevated Rock Art – Towards a maritime understanding of Bronze Age rock art in northern Bohuslän, Sweden” Johan LING, Oxbow Books, 2014, ISBN: 9781782977629