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The Workshop on Petroglyphs

(Petropolis: The Center for Petroglyph Studies plan)
Location: Petrozavodsk, Russia
Time: 14.9-18.9.1998

150 anniversary of The Lake Onega petroglyhps' discovery

Some Data About Lake Onega Rock Art

Väino Poikalainen
Estonian Society of Prehistoric Art
Eastern-Karelia in North-West Russia is famous in two rock art territories. One lies close to Belomorsk (White Sea) at the mouth of the River Vyg and another is on the Eastern shore of Lake Onega (Fig. 1). White Sea rock art contains plenty of marine thematic and numerous carvings are enclosed to dynamic compositions in which the sequence of time is performed by footprints, ski tracks and other traces. Rock carvings of Lake Onega about 330 km to the South, represent more static integer rich in waterfowl images, abstract signs and beautiful compositions full of ulterior senses.

Fenno-Ugrians and Prehistoric Rock-Art at Lake Onega.

Eastern Karelia belongs to the traditional living space of contemporary Fenno-Ugrians forming the major part of the vast northern forest territories from Finland to the Western Siberia. Only Hungarians have migrated far away to South-West in Middle Ages. Prehistoric tribes which have once formed the substance of these nations occupied though larger but in principal the same areas. The archaeological material indicates tight connection and cultural interaction within these territories in prehistoric times.

Fenno-Ugrian nations living close to the Baltic are called Balto Finnic People and their languages enable understanding between Karelians, Vepsians, Finns, Votians, Estonians, Livonians etc. to a certain extent. Eastern Fenno-Ugrians differ quite much from Balto-Finnic People anthropologically and also linguistically. So there are only few common words in Udmurt (or Komi or Mordvin) and Finnish languages. But some similarities can still be noticed in the structure of language, also in strain of character, folk music, folklore and traditional believes. The relativeness of languages is usually imagined as a language tree, which also aids to imagine the lingual developments in the course of time (Fig.2).

The territory of typical comb-pottery and partly that of pit-pottery distribution is nearly the same as is the distribution of Balto-Finnic People. That was the main reason for archaeologists and linguists to consider pit-comb-pottery people to be partly predecessors for later Balto-Finnic tribes and to create a theory of Proto-Finnic language, from which the modern Sami and Balto-Finnic languages have been developed. By now this theory contradicts to some extent recent anthropological data and many new hypotheses of especially Sami people origin have been put forth.

Contemporary archaeological investigations have proved that also rock carvings of Lake Onega have been made by the pit- comb pottery Stone Age people at about 5000-6000 years ago. They came from the East and inhabited also Finland, Estonia and other Eastern regions of the Baltic. The same type of pottery has been found up to the Western side of Gulf of Bothnia. On the opposite side of the territory similar pottery cultures stretched up to the Ural Mountains. So these carvings have also become one of the most important sources for intellectual and mental studies of the Stone Age ancestors of Balto-Finns.

The study of Lake Onega rock-art has past quite a long history from its initial description of the sites one and a half centuries ago. During it the number of known carvings, sites and the territory concerned has constantly grown. The first opinions about "petty petroglyphs on the periphery of Northern Europe" have gradually changed to the conviction of the most valuable hunters rock art representation in the Northern Hemisphere. These ideas have raised much wider than only scientific and artistic interest among the peoples in Russia, Scandinavian and other countries.

The rock carvings of Lake Onega were discovered by treasurer of Mineralogical Museum of the Imperial Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg Constantin Caspar Grewingk in 1848. He was of Estonian origin and later served as the professor of mineralo- gy at the Tartu University. Following investigators of Onega petroglyphs: Hallström, Linevski, Ravdonikas, Bryusov, Laushkin, Savvatejev, Stolyar, Autio, Ernits, and many others enlargend considerably the known material and understanding of the carvings.

In 1982 an Estonian Working Group for Petroglyph Investigation which later was reorganized to the Estonian Society of Prehistoric Art, started new documentation of the petroglyphs. During the field work, carried out in 1982-1994, all known petroglyphs and sites at Lake Onega have been newly documented. These works revealed some new sites and also many unknown carvings in known sites. By now the creation of a guide-book consisting all preserved rock carvings, maps etc. is on the way. It will cover the whole number of known carvings which has reached 1270 (including 92 of those on rock slabs at Petrozavodsk and St.Petersburg museums). In the near future a project of a computerized data- and picture-base of the Lake Onega rock art will be launched. Also a couple of scientific film projects about prehistoric art are waiting finances for completing them.

Typical features and some statistics of the carvings

By now 1176 preserved petroglyphs are known on the shore granit cliffs of capes and islands alongside the shoreline of about 20 km-s. Carvings are relatively low, mostly only 1-2 mm deep, but usually very carefully processed. It could be noticed that certain style and beauty have been the spacial pursuits of the authors. Low depth, fissures, erosion and lichen growth lower the visibility of the carvings badly. Often they are almost invisible and need extraordinary means for looking at. One of the best ways to see them is to visit rocks at night using torches to illuminate the carvings by light oblique to the surface. The same result appears when the Sun goes down. But even at most ideal circumstances problems can arise if experiences of the visitor are insufficient.

Carving emerge in various size. About 66% of them are smaller than 25 cm, 23% have medium measures between 25-50 cm and 11% are bigger than 50 cm. Some are extremely large. Biggest petroglyph is 4.1 meter Big Swan from Cape Swan. The Devil, Otter and Sheatfish from Western site of Besov Nos exceed 2.5 meters (Fig. 3). There are clear evidences that size of carvings has had a certain meaning as on some sites the percentage of bigger carvings is many times greater than on the others. To those belong the sites of Vodla area, Peri 2 and Western site of Besov Nos. There could be found also extremely small petroglyphs. For example 5 cm solar signs from Northern site of Besov Nos and Karetski.

Though the carving motifs embody large variety of different shapes (Fig. 4), certain rules have been followed what to depict. It is evident that only few prototype living creatures and pieces of the nature have been pecked to the rocks. Tremendous amount of other possibilities has been abandoned. From the other side carvings of certain type carry only selected features and not always they could be used as identificators of the natural prototypes. This reveals that carvings are depictions of canonic shapes which were objects of deep respect.

Bird-like or ornitomorphic motifs are dominating in the whole territory. From the total number of carvings 42% represent waterfowls. Great deal of them are swan-like silhouette or outline images. They are either realistic, stylized or symbolic. Some of them are directly connected with the brakes in the rock. Best examples of it are swan necks rising from the rift or disappearing into them (Fig. 5). Mythical are also swan images having bow-like stripes on the body. Special group is formed by double birds which usually are depicted as symbolic signs (Fig. 6).

Very few scholars have tried to make profound studies about the swan images. Only shorter remarks of more or less universal form could be found from the different writings. Though swans have usually mythical appearance Linevski considered them to be the main gain animals for the society. Ravdonikas and Bryusov mentioned the swan among the totemic animals but did not argue it deeper. Ravdonikas raised also idea of striped swans as cosmic symbols.

Autio assumed that Lake Onega swans were honored and celebrated during prehistoric festivals as totemic ancestors. But beside being totems they have also belonged to a part of believes associated with the World of Ancestors and the Sun. He has find suitable parallels from the description of believes and swan festivals from ethnographic studies of Finno-Ugric nations. One of his arguments lies on the bird-headed human-like figures (Fig 7). He concluded that folk believes and customs of Karelian and Vepsian nations connected to the swan, might have their roots in the Carving Age.

Next numerous group - 16% of carvings - is formed by incomprehensible fragments; straight and bow-like lines, angles, indefinite patches etc. belong to them. These petroglyphs seem to be rather probations than unfinished figures and usually situate a little apart from the center of rock art panel. The great number of them indicates to the certain meaning although not been a subject of the special study yet. Most probably they will once have importance for investigations concerning the practice of making the petroglyphs.

Various figures with rays proceeding from a half-moon-, crescent- or disc-shaped images cover 13% of the total number. In literature they are now known as "lunar and solar signs" according to Ravdonikas interpretation. Wider typological study was made by Ernits who considers all these carvings as lunar symbols and divides them into 26 different types according to the number and layout of the rays and the shape of main body. From them 27% are of crescent-shaped, 7% of half-moon and 66% of full moon symbols. The most frequent types are the silhouette figures with two rays and the rayless type. The greatest number of lunar and solar symbols has been found on Cape Karetski. Relatively rich in these is also Cape Peri whereas on site Peri 6 they are prevailing (Fig 8). In some places this category of motifs is wholly laking. To those belong sites of Vodla area, some small sites and surprisingly Western site of Besov Nos.

Lunar and solar symbols have been under intensive investigation and many possible meanings were given to them from the very beginning of investigations. Grewingk explained the disc- and crescent-shaped petroglyphs as marks of lakes with river inlets and as personal signs of an ancient hunter. Linevski put forth a theory of animal traps of various shape and type. Basing on this he described most of the carving groups as hunting scenes and made conclusions about the living of the tribe. The so-called "the theory of traps" existed later side by side with Ravdonikas's hypothesis of cosmic symbols up to the 1970s. Both of them had numerous supporters and followers.

"The cosmic theory" has been progressed by F. Ravdonikas (1978) to assumption of Stone Age lunar calendar in which all the so-called solar and lunar signs are actually symbols of moon.

Besides lunar and solar signs rock carvings of Lake Onega consist also some other types of sign-like motifs. They have different form resembling tuning-fork, loop, bobbin etc. and make up 3% of the carvings. From these signs most numerous and attractive are the so-called "power sticks" or "crosiers". They have staff-like part which starts from the apex of a triangular base and has an application of elk head (Fig 9). Accordingly to Linevski they have been used by hunters as weapon alike darts, by Ravdonikas opinion these were sun worship objects and Stolyar describes them as "power-sticks" or "crosiers" of the tribe leaders. The elk head applications on them resemble very much of the antler elk-heads from the mesolithic cemetery of Oleni island. It could be supposed that the wooden body of the "crosiers" has also been in grave but has not preserved. Surprisingly most of those carvings point at the Oleni island approximately 50 km away. In Stolyar interpretation this place was "the Island of Dead" in social memory of the ancient dwellers. Autio explains appearance of "crosier" depictions as attributes for worship the Lord of Winds. I have classified them in this text to the class of attributive petroglyphs to which belong also oars and many other sign-like carvings (except lunar and solar signs) as possible artefact used by humans or human-like beings.

If to exclude bird-like motifs, animals have been prototypes for 12% of the carvings. From those elk- and moose-like motifs form 8% of the images. Usually the differentiation between these two species is easy but sometimes impossible due to lack of specific morphological identificators. Moose- and elk-like carvings have been found in all major sites but most numerously at Northern site of Besov Nos, Cape Karetski and Peri 3. In none of the sites they prevail among other motifs. Most of them are depicted as silhouette carvings with two legs but also outlined and four-leg representatives could be found. Absolutely all of moose/elk-like petroglyphs don't have depictions of antlers. Even all elk head applications of other carvings as boat stems and "crosiers" lack them. That has been an argument for those who interpret appearance of these animals as signs of fertility cult. In some cases especially at elk figures clearly mythical features as extremely big head, long tail, lack of legs or quadrangular body could be noticed (Fig. 10).

The other animal form 4% of the total number of the carvings. From those 0.8% are snakes, 0.8% bears, 0.6% beavers, 0.3% whales, 0.2% otters, 0.2% fishes, 0.1% foxes. The rest of animal figures have indefinite shape. The great deal of this variety of animals is silhouettely depicted at the sites of Besov Nos area. From those most interesting is the Western site of Besov Nos were the whale and fish figures have been made (Fig. 11).

The 89 anthropomorphic or human-like petroglyphs make up 7% of the total. From those a little bit more than a half are profile figures, the rest is depicted from the frontal view. The shapes of human-like figures varies very much if to take in mind the variety level of more prevalent carving types. Most usual are these motifs at Karetski, Peri and Besov Nos.

All profile figures have one depicted leg which is bent from the knee and has a foot. Special attention seems to be paid to the size of the calves of the legs. The accentuated calf is characteristic to the half of the human-like carvings and most usually to the profile ones. In every case feet are depicted in side view.

Hands seemed to have been less important as legs from the limbs. About 10% of human depictions have hands with three fingers and only the "Devil" at Western site of Besov Nos has five fingers on both hands. The same amount of human-like carvings have no arms.

The form of the head varies greatly. Sometimes a kind of applications resembling pigtail or a headdress similar to that on logo of the popular rock band "Leningrad Cowboys" has been added (Fig 12). Instead of human head it could carry also the head of elk, waterfowl, some undistinguishable animal and even a branch of a tree. This type of carvings have mainly been interpreted as totemic ancestors. In other cases the head can be absent and at Cape Peri there is an anthropomorph with two heads. This fact again favors the possible links to the Mesolithic cemetery of Oleni island where a small human-like sculpture with two faces has been found.

Some human-like figures are sexually distinguishable. So 15 figures are phallistic, 4 have breasts and 1 a vulva. In addition 2 women participate in copulation but don't have any distinguishable morphological identificators of the sex. Also the big "Devil" at Western site of Besov Nos is considered to be female due to pose and the crack bisecting it from the genitals up. It has been interpreted as the creature giving birth to offsprings of game animals, fish and own tribe. Some other interpretations consider human-like motifs to be mythological heros or shamans.

Quite common are also the boat-like petroglyphs. They form 5% of the carvings. Humans on board are represented as perpendicular dash-lines, but in some cases, especially at Guri islands, more detailed features as head and arms can be recognized. About a half of the boats does not have the crew but mostly there are some 3-5 human signs depicted. Most numerously populated boat situates on Cape Karetski and has 20 crew-members on board (Fig 13). They usually have high stems with elk head decorations without antlers. Boat figures are numerous at Cape Karetski, Peri and Besov Nos. On the sites of Vodla area they are rare and differ from those of other sites. Boat-like carvings have been interpreted as vessels to carry dead ancestors. Ravdonikas saw in them also clear connections to the Cult of Sun.

Very special group of unique motifs represent figures which have clearly distinguishable shapes but don't appear in a wider scale. They form about 2% of the carvings. This number is fairly large if to take in mind that prehistoric tradition has been conservative. The so-called "Magic Mill" from Cape Swan could be a good example of it (Fig 14). General distribution of sites, motifs, size and height from the lake level is given in table 1.

Table 1. Distribution of rock-carvings at Lake Onega

Site OM IF LS EM HL BL AL AP UP Sum Height cm Distribution by size S/M/B
Northern site 59 7 - 16 5 4 2 - 1 94 105..2628/32/40
Western site 3 1 - - - 1 - - - 5 147..193 75/25/ 0
Southern site 28 16 - 7 - 1 1 - - 53 109..236 39/44/17
VODLA 73 35 - 7 - - 2 1 - 118 112..230 32/36/32
BIG-GOLETS 5 - - - - - - - - 5 - 100/ 0/ 0
KARETSKI 45 8 46 23 13 12 10 5 3 165 -1..256 80/16/ 4
Moduzh island 9 2 - 1 - - 1 - - 13 28..37 100/ 0/ 0
Peri I 13 7 - - - - - - - 20 2..78 75/25/ 0
Peri II 6 3 3 - 2 - 2 - - 16 6..111 54/15/31
Peri III 78 41 31 25 23 22 3 10 4 237 -3..149 78/21/ 1
Peri IV 10 8 4 - 2 1 1 3 1 30 43..72 90/10/ 0
Peri VI 7 12 44 2 6 3 3 6 3 86 0..100 87/ 6/ 7
Peri VII 2 - 1 - 1 - - - - 4 19..118 100/ 0/ 0
Northern site 9 1 8 8 2 2 1 - - 31 -4..105 70/23/ 7
Western site 84 9 1 5 12 6 13 4 10 144 67..233 42/30/21
Kladovets 30 3 2 1 3 1 - - 1 41 60..196 71/25/ 4
Tshornaya 2 1 1 - 2 - 2 - - 8 76..86 88/12/ 0
CAPE GAZHI 10 3 - 1 1 1 2 - - 18 78..118 72/18/ 0
Big-Guri 16 23 13 3 - 1 1 9 - 66 8..73 94/ 6/ 0
Little Guri 7 7 2 3 1 2 - - - 22 55..81 82/14/ 4

OM - ornitomorphic or bird-like;
IF - incomprehensible fragments;
LS - lunar and solar signs; 
EM - elk/moose-like
HL - human-like;
BL - boat-like; 
AL - other animal-like; 
AP - attributive petroglyphs; 
UP - unique petroglyphs.
Size of petroglyphs: 
S - small < 25 cm;  
26 cm < M - medium > 50 cm;
51 cm < B - big.

The typology of the carvings given below might not follow the original importance and meaning of them because it has been built up only on the formal identificators and doesn't consider the ancient content of the petroglyphs. But it helps in understanding the variety of them and to make some common conclusions of the motif distribution, shapes and other data.

Additional reading

  • Autio,E.
    Karjalan kalliopiirrokset. Helsinki. 1981.
  • Grewingk,C.
    "Über die in Granit geritzten Bildergruppen am Ostufer des Onega-Sees. " Bulletin de la Classe des sciences historique, philosophique et politique de l'Academie des Sciences de St. Petersburg, 12. 1855.
  • Hallström, G.
    Monumental Art of Northern Sweden from the Stone Age. Malmö. 1960.
  • Laushkin,K.D.
    "Onezhskoye svyatilishtshe", Skandinavski sbornik, 4 - 5. Tallinn. 1959, 1962.
  • Linevski,A.M.
    Petroglify Kareli, 1. Petrozavodsk. 1939.
  • Linevski, A.M.
    Otsherki po istori drevnei Kareli, 1. Petrozavodsk. 1940.
  • Lobanova, N.
    "Petroglyphs of the Kotshkovnavolok Peninsula: dating, natural environment and the material culture of their creators." Perceiving Rock Art: Social and Political Perspectives. Oslo. 1995.

    Muinaiset kuvat: Näyttely Keski-Suomen museossa Jyväskylä 24. 08.- 22. 09. Eestin Muinaistaideseura. 1991.
  • Pankrusev,G.A.
    Mezolit i neolit Karelii, 1. Leningrad, 1978.
  • Poikalainen,V., Ernits,E.
    "Äänisjärve kaljujoonised ja esivanemate loodusetunnetus", 1 - 2. Eesti loodus, 3 - 4.Tallinn, 1987.

    Turun maakuntamuseon raportteja 11, Suomen antropologisen seuran julkaisuja 1. Kalliotaidetta - tutkimusta ja tulkintaa. Turku. 1990.
  • Ravdonikas, F. V.
    "Lunarnyje znaki v naskal'nych izobrahzeniyah Onehzskogo ozera". U istokov tvortshestva. Novosibirsk. 1978.
  • Ravdonikas, V. I.
    Naskal'nyye izobrazheniya Onezhskogo ozera i Belogo morya. 1: Naskal'nyye izobrazheniya Onezhskogo ozera. Moskva; Leningrad. 1936.
  • Ravdonikas,V.I.
    "Sledy totemitsheskih predstavleni v obrazah naskal'nyh izobrazheni Onezhskogo ozera i Belogo morya".Sovetskaya arheologiya, 3. 1937.
  • Ravdonikas,V.I.
    "Elementy kosmitsheskih predstavleni v obrazah naskal'nyh izobrahzeni". Sovetskaya arheologiya, 4. 1937.
  • Savvateev, Ju.A.
    Onezhskiye petroglify i tema zverja v nih. Zveri v kamne. Novosibirsk. S. 136-158. 1980.
  • Savvateyev, J.A.
    Zalavruga. Arheologitsheskiye pamyatniki nizovya reki Vyg 1. Petroglify. Leningrad. 1970.
  • Savvateyev, J.A.
    Naskal'nyye risunki Kareli. Petrozavodsk. 1983.
  • Sawwatejew, J.
    1984. Karelische Felsbilder, Leipzig
  • Stoljar,A.D.
    1978. "O genetitsheskoi prirode "besa" Onezhskih petroglifov Kareli". Problemy arheologi, 2. Leningrad. Stolyar, A.D.
    1983. ""Zhezly" Onezhskih petroglifov i ih materyal'nyye prototipy." Izyskaniya po mezolitu i neolitu SSSR. Leningrad.

    Swansongs: Rock Art from Lake Onega 4000- 2000 B.C. = Joutsenen kynällä: Äänisen kalliotaidetta 4000 - 2000 eKr. Estonian Society of Prehistoric Art. 1990.


Fig. 1          Rock art sites, pit-comb pottery settlements and artefact in Karelia (Adapted from Lobanova).
Fig. 2          The tree of Fenno-Ugrian languages.
Fig. 3          Major petroglyph panel of Besov Nos (by Ravdonikas).
Fig. 4          Distribution of carving motifs and sites.
Fig. 5          Swan necks from Cape Besov Nos (copied by Eve Selisaar)
Fig. 6          Double waterfowl motifs from various sites.
Fig. 7         Totemic swan-men from the Western Site of Besov Nos.
Fig. 8          Solar sign from Peri 6.
Fig. 9          "Crosier" from Peri 6.
Fig.10         Examples of elk depictions from Peri 3.
Fig.11         Fish from Besov Nos.
Fig.12        Copulation scene from Peri 3.
Fig.13         A Boat from Cape Karetski (copied by Eve Selisaar).
Fig.14         "Magic Mill" from Cape Swan.

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