Large clusters of rock art spanning thousands of years but located at the same site may hold key to detecting massive cultural changes in prehistoric hunter-gatherers of the north.
The way the variations of image both mirror and reinterpret act as a kind of call and response between different packs of hunters across hundreds - even thousands - of years."—Mark Sapwell
Updating a virtual wall with details of our lives, and checking it to catch up with others, is part of the daily routine for millions.
But imagine a prehistoric version – with a timeline preserved in actual stone encompassing thousands of years, on which our ancestors used symbolic interpretations of animals and events to communicate with distant tribes and their own descendants – allowing us to trace societal developments in these ancient nomadic communities over the course of generations.
Cambridge archaeologist Mark Sapwell is using the latest technology to analyse the different types, traits and tropes in the thousands of images imprinted on two granite outcrops in the frozen north, where landscapes of early Bronze Age art spanning millennia stretch across areas of rock the size of football pitches.
"These sites are on river networks, and boat is likely how these Bronze Age tribes travelled," explains Sapwell. "The rock art I’m studying is found near rapids and waterfalls, places where you would have to maybe leave the river and walk around – carrying your animal-skin canoe on your back – natural spots to stop and leave your mark as you journey through, like a kind of artistic tollbooth."
The two sites that Sapwell is investigating, Zalavruga in Russia and Nämforsen in Northern Sweden, contain around 2,500 images each of animals, people, boats, hunting scenes – even very early centaurs and mermaids.
Using analytical software, archaeologists are able easily compare the imagery over large areas – adding and ticking off layers to create a sense of how people built on existing images to generate fresh perspectives on the art over generations, reflecting the cultural innovations as the nomads began to settle, and trade routes opened up.
"People would create art as an open invitation, it’s accumulative," says Sapwell. "Like a Facebook status invites comment, the rock art appears very social and invites addition – the way the variations of image both mirror and reinterpret act as a kind of call and response between different packs of hunters across hundreds – even thousands – of years."