The Spell of Rock Art

A prize possession of mine is the 2003 Finno-Ugric Calendar published by the Estonian Society of Prehistoric Art and the Fenno-Ugria Foundation. The photo work was done by society member Loit Joekalda, whom I met in Tallinn in 2002.

It is full of gorgeous colour photographs of the rock art of the Finno-Ugric region as well as short bits of ancient folk tales and songs in the original languages and in English. It is an inspiration to me in my art work and because of that, I may quote some of the writings here from time to time.

Vaino Poikalainen, chair of the Estonian Society of Prehistoric Art, wrote a most beautiful introduction, which I quote here in its entirety (though it is long):

A great deal of ancient art is to be found in the present and historical territories of the Finno-Ugric peoples. Various figurines functioned of bone, wood, clay, or metal, figures painted onto rock (petrograms) or carved into it (petroglyphs), as well as cult constructions and arrangements (barrows, sacred seita-stones, labyrinths etc.) were created to animate ancient religion. Myths, traditions and rituals served the same purpose. They all reflected a vision of the world order and corresponding behavioural and communicative patterns.

Ancient art and religious practices were used to explain natural phenomena to heal the sick, to teach children and to ensure sufficient food for the community. Rock art provides perhaps the richest source of information for our present knowledge of ancient beliefs. But the very roots of our modern world views, our national identities, legislation, natural sciences, medicine, as well as many other branches of sciences, art and education were nurtured by ancient art in general and rock art in particular.

The richest sites for Finno-Ugric rock art are found in: the Tom River basin of Western Siberia (Proto-Ugrian tribes); the central and southern areas of the Ural Mountains (Proto-Ugrian and Proto-Permian tribes); the eastern coast of Lake Onega and the Vyg (Uiku) River estuary in Eastern Karelia (Proto-Finnic and Proto-Saami tribes); the islands of Lake Kanozero, the middle courses of the Ponoi River and Cape Rybachi in the Kola peninsula (Proto-Saamis); and in southern, Eastern, and Southeastern Finland (Proto-Finnic Tribes). Most of these monuments, which were created by ancient hunters, fishers and gatherers, date back to the Stone and Bronze Ages, for which no contemporary written sources are available. The oldest rock art ever discovered are the cave paintings found in the southern Urals. They are thought to be 15-17 thousand years old. The Karelian petroglyphs and the Finnish rock paintings are considered to be about 4-6 thousand years old. The Kola and Alta rock art was produced between 2.5-6 thousand years ago, while the age of the rock paintings of the middle and southern Urals as well as the Tom River petroglyphs is estimated at 3-6 thousand years.

Although the ancient images found on rocks may at first seem primitive, they eventually cast a spell over anyone who takes the trouble to look at them more deeply. Part of the reason for this may lie in their slightly childish yet aesthetically pleasing appearance. A more significant reason, however, is hidden in their power to reveal and make sense of the universality of creation, as it was reflected in ancient belief systems and a way of life closer to nature.

The significance of rock art is further enhanced by the very locations chosen as sacred sites. These were singularly shaped natural formations, bodies of water, rocks and stones where the essential magic and rituals necessary for the tribe’s existence were carried out. The aim was to achieve a harmony between the man and the environment and to ensure the continuation of the traditional way of life. Any conflict with nature, any wasteful misuse of resources or deviation from familiar patterns might have posed a threat to the livelihood and very existence of the tribe itself.

This is a way of thinking that has almost been forgotten today. In our consumer society, prosperity and a sense of security are ensured through constant growth and an increase in consumption, which can only result in constant change. Perhaps for this reason alone, it becomes difficult for the modern person to comprehend rock art. Moreover, the ancient world view and system of beliefs were doubtless part of a considerably larger whole than the fragments that have been passed on to us in the form of rock art. And yet, we can use our rich capacity for imagination together with our sense of the time and place to penetrate this ancient world in order to bring it to life in our minds, if for no more than a brief moment. The resulting spiritual contact with our ancestors from beyond millennia will prove to be an unforgettable experience; much like the first sensations in childhood: fragmentary, perhaps not fully understood, pictures, sounds and smells out of one’s memory, full of emotion and fascination, coming back to each person in its own way.

March 29, 2004 in Ethnicity, Finland, Estonia & Finno-Ugric, Folk Legends & Myths, Rock Art & Archaeology by Marja-Leena