Dating the Norwegian Petroglyphs

Over the last year, I’ve been writing numerous blog posts about the petroglyphs of Norway. In this blog post, I want to provide a brief overview of what we know about when these petroglyphs were made.

Modern humans, Homo sapiens, are currently believed to have emerged around 300,000 year ago. However, we likely did not exhibit the traits of behavioral modernity until between 160,000 and 70,000 years ago. These are traits such as abstract thinking, in-depth planning, and symbolic behavior. This allowed us to create and appreciate art, starting to set us apart from other animals..

The First Signs of Rock Art

Photo of a stone from the Blombos cave with abstract patterns carved into it.
Ochre stone with abstract pattern found at the Blombos cave site. (Source: Chris S. Henshilwood/Wikimedia Commons)

Rock art refers to paintings or carvings on (or made of) stone made by humans in the prehistoric era. It is found in all parts of the world, except for Antarctica. The abstract patterns at the Blombos Cave in South Africa, estimated to be around 70,000 years old, is considered to be the earliest known example. The earliest figurative art currently known is at the caves in the Maros-Pangkep karst, Indonesia, estimated to be older than 40,000 years old.

Photo of a cave painting of a pig in the Maros-Pangkep caves.
Cave painting of a pig in the Maros-Pangkep caves. (Source: Kinez Riza )

Rock Art in Norway

The first signs of rock art in Norway date back to the Nordic Stone Age, around 10,000-1,800 BCE. This is a relatively late date compared to other parts of the world. Though, it is not surprising given that there were no or few humans living in Norway before the last ice age. The Scandinavian Ice Sheet and the climate made the region inhospitable, and it wasn’t until the ice sheet retreated that humans began to settle in the area.

The oldest human remains found in Norway belong to the Søgne Woman (Søgnekvinnen), who lived around 7910-7600 BCE. Other evidence of human presence, such as tools, dates back to around 9000-8000 BCE. This marks the approximate time when humans began settling in Norway.

Photo of reconstruction of Norwegian Stone Age human "Vistegutten" by Oscar Nilsson.
Reconstruction of “Vistegutten” after some of the best skeletal remains from Stone Age Norway. (Source: Oscar Nilsson)

Among the various forms of rock art, petroglyphs are by far the most common type found in Norway. Although other types of rock art, such as cave paintings, also exist in the country. But petroglyphs are the primary focus of this article. Petroglyphs are sometimes painted red to make them more visible, but they were likely left unpainted by their creators.

Norwegian petroglyphs are usually separated into two categories of petroglyphs: veideristninger and jordbruksristninger


Photo of petroglyph of a deer from Salthammeren.
Stone Age Veideristninger at Salthammeren.

Veideristninger, derived from the Old Norse word veiðr (meaning hunting (jakt/fangst)), primarily date back to the Nordic Stone Age (10,000-1,800 BCE). These petroglyphs often depict scenes of hunting, fishing, and animals, with deer species such as reindeer and moose being the most easily identifiable.

The most anatomically correct and acurately drawn figures are of deer. Despite the later appearance of jordbruksristninger, the accuracy of the figures did not improve. Deer figures often dominate the sites with veideristninger, with some sites featuring only deer figures. This suggests the significant importance of deer to the people creating these carvings. Some researchers connect this to the importance of deer as a source for food and clothing. However, research on human remains from Stone Age Norway indicates that the sea was the primary source of food for early inhabitants. This has led some to theorize that there must be other reasons why deer figures dominate the early rock art of Norway.


Jordbruksristninger, which translates to “agricultural carvings,” mostly date back to the Nordic Bronze Age (1,800 BCE – 500 BCE). While the term relates to agriculture, few symbols are directly linked to farming activities. Some symbols, however, can be indirectly interpreted as being related to agriculture, such as symbols representing fertility. Most sites with jordbruksristnigner include at least a few ship figures, and it is not uncommon to find sites with only ship figures. This fascination with ships is relatively unique to the Norwegian petroglyphs and is seen by some as foreshadowing the Viking Age.

Photo of jordbruksristninger petroglyphs from Begby Gullskår.
Jordbruksristninger at Begby Gullskår.

These petroglyophs are called jorbruksristninger since they date from the period when agriculture first came to Norway. There are traces of agriculture in Norway dating back to around 2500 BCE, but it became much more common during the Bronze Age.

Photo of jordbruksristninger petroglyphs from Penne.
Jordbruksristninger at Penne.

Challenges of Dating Petroglyphs

Most petroglyphs in Norway have been fairly reliably dated to either the Stone Age or Bronze Age. It is mostly believed that petroglyph creation ceased by the end of the Bronze Age.

Accurately dating petroglyphs is one of the most significant challenges in studying them. While no method is entirely precise, researchers use a combination of approaches to make reasonably reliable estimates. Some of these methods include:

Strandlinje datering (shore-line dating)

Sea levels in Norway changed dramatically after the last Ice Age. Both due to water from melting ice, and because of the land slowly rising again after being pressed down by the glacial ice.

Illustration of the changes in sea levels in Trondheim after the last Ice Age.
Changes in sea levels in Trondheim after the last Ice Age. (Source: Gråstein Nr.5: “Trondheim fra istid til nåtid”)

As an example, the above illustrations show how the sea-levels changed in Trondheim after the Ice Age:

  • A. Trondheim 11,500 years ago.
  • B. 9600 years ago, sea-level ca. 120 m higher than present.
  • C. 8300 years ago, sea-level ca. 60 m higher than present.
  • D. 3600 years ago, sea-level ca. 20 m higher than present.

Geologists can accurately determine how sea levels changed over time, and this knowledge can be used as a tool for dating petroglyphs. This is particularly useful for setting the oldest probable date to a site with petroglyphs, as they weren’t created underwater.

For reasons that are not entirely clear most, but not all, of the petroglyphs in Norway are found fairly close water (or where there used to be water). Some researchers believe that many of them were made right next to the water. If true, this knowledge can be used to date the petroglyphs to a time when the water was close to, but not above, a given petroglyph site. However, most researchers don’t think shore-line dating alone is sufficient for precisely dating petroglyphs.

Radiocarbon Dating

Photo of the skeletal remains of Vistegutten.
The skeletal remains of Vistegutten. Bone fragments is an example of organic material that can be carbon dated. (Source: Terje Tveit, Arkeologisk museum, Universitetet i Stavanger)

While petroglyphs themselves cannot be directly carbon-14 dated, organic materials found in close proximity can provide a chronological context. If nearby, possibly related material can be dated, it is possible to make informed estimations about the age of the petroglyphs.

This could include organic traces from campfires, bones, tools or food found next to the petroglyph site. Although it isn’t necessarily proof that the petroglyphs were created at the same time, it provides some indication. Especially if organic traces from the same period are also found near other petroglyph sites with similar style and symbols.

Stylistic Analysis

Photos of petroglyphs from Ekeberg and Hell.
Headless deer figure petroglyphs at Ekeberg and Hell. Same subject, but done in very different styles and carved using different techniques.

By comparing the styles of carvings, researchers can establish a chronological sequence. Distinct artistic styles can be associated with specific time periods, providing researchers with a rough idea of the petroglyphs’ age. This includes both the style of the symbols and the method used to carve them. Like the other methods, stylistic analysis is not very strong evidence on its own. No method alone gives a very accurate estimate, but the accuracy greatly increases when multiple methods are used together.

These three methods for dating petroglyphs are just a few of the more common techniques used in the field.

The Possibility of Pre-Ice Age Petroglyphs in Norway

The last Ice Age, called the Weichselian glaciation for northern Europe, spanned from around 115,000 to 11,700 years ago. The northern parts of Europe were covered by the Scandinavian Ice Sheet, which is estimated to have reached a thickness of 3,000 meters (9,800 feet).

Temperatures varied considerably during the Weichselian glaciation, and there were several relatively warm periods lasting thousands of years. Given how quickly humans arrived in Norway after the end of the Ice Age, it is not impossible that there was a human presence during some of these longer warm periods. However, traces of their presence, including petroglyphs, would have been destroyed by the extreme weight of the ice.

Illustration of the changes in ice coverage during the Weichselian glaciation.
Maps showing Norway during the Weichselian glaciation. Showing ice covereage 120,000, 110,000, 100,000, 90,000, 80,000, 60,000, 35,000 and 20,000 years ago. (Source: Jan Mangerud / Store Norske Leksikon)

Remains of large mammals, such as mammoth bones dating from a milder period around 50,000 years ago, have been found in Norway. This suggests that not all traces of the past were completely eliminated during the last glacial maximum when the ice sheets were at their greatest extent.

While it isn’t unthinkable that there was some human activity in Norway during the warmer periods of the last Ice Age, any larger settlements of humans would likely have left traces that would have been discovered by now. The Norwegian petroglyphs known today do not date from before the Ice Age, as none of them are in locations where they could have been protected from the ice sheet.

The Possibility of Post-Bronze Age Petroglyphs in Norway

In the 1800s, researchers who pioneered research on Scandinavian petroglyphs initially attributed them to the Vikings. Further studies clarified that these carvings predated the Viking Age (~800-1050 CE). The Vikings created rune stones, which share some similarities with petroglyphs. One significant difference is that rune stones featured runic inscriptions. Additionally, the style of the patterns and other symbols are so different from the petroglyphs to make it obvious that these were made by a different culture. Carbon dating of nearby artifacts also indicates they were made during a separate time period.

Photo of a rune stone.
Svingerudsteinen, found in a grave radiocarbon dated to be from between 1 and 250 CE, is the oldest known dateble rune stone. (Source: Kulturhistorisk Museum)

Symbols on older Sámi artifacts, such as Sámi drums can sometimes resemble petroglyph symbols. The Norse culture underwent a stylistic change that diverges significantly from the petroglyph figures, which is an argument against the Vikings making petroglyphs. The Sámi, however, appear to have used styles similar to the petroglyphs for a longer time.

Photo of a Sámi drum next to photo of petroglyophs from Alta.
Left: Sámi drum, first described in 1671 CE (Source: Nordiska Museet). Right: Petroglyphs at Bergbukten, Alta. Dated to ~5000 BCE (Source: Alta Museum).

It is commonly believed that the split between Norse and Sámi culture began during the later parts of the Bronze Age. The culture(s) responsible for the Norwegian petroglyphs are typically seen as predecessors to the distinction between Norse and Sámi.

No evidence has been found to suggest that any of the known petroglyph sites were created after the Nordic Bronze Age. But, evidence is more scarce at some sites than others. If a site really was carved after the Bronze Age, it would be difficult to determine using the carvings on the rock surface as the only source of evidence.

Final Thoughts

Despite the challenges of precise dating, current methods have allowed researchers to develop a relatively accurate understanding of petroglyphs’ age and historical context. There is strong evidence against any known petroglyphs in Norway being created before the end of the last Ice Age, and convincing evidence against any known Norwegian petroglyphs being made after the Nordic Bronze Age. There is also decent evidence for distinguishing between petroglyphs made during the Stone Age and those made during the Bronze Age. We do not have pinpoint accuracy when it comes to dating petroglyphs, and estimates typically present a range. Such as estimating the date of creation for a given petroglyph to have been sometime between 6000 BCE and 5000 BCE.

With a better understanding of when they were made, it is interesting to delve into why they were created. Petroglyphs offer insights into the lives, beliefs, and artistic expressions of our ancestors. Since there are no written records and relatively few other traces left by the first humans inhabiting Norway, petroglyphs serve as our most valuable resource for learning about them. However, interpreting their intended meaning can be an even more significant challenge than dating them. Unraveling these mysteries requires not only scientific and historical expertise but also a sense of imagination and curiosity to connect with our distant past.

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