Nature Trip to Prehistory

The nature in the Finnish Lakeland offers a unique opportunity to combine wilderness trekking with prehistoric culture. The Nordic Countries’ most extensive rock painting sites are Saraakallio at Laukaa and Astuvansalmi at Ristiina.

The people that used to live in the area of Finland in the Stone Age lived a nomadic life. They journeyed along water routes, hunted and fished. In the summer they used canoes, and in the winter skis and dog sleds on ice. They moved from a water route to another by pulling the canoes over the isthmuses that separated the waterways. Rock paintings were often painted at the crossroads of such routes.

“About 7,000 years ago the Stone Age hunter-gatherers began painting on the smooth vertical rock faces with red ochre. It is possible that the same rock face has been painted on for hundreds or thousands of years”, says archaeologist Ilari Aalto at Turku University.

“That means that a Stone Age man may have looked at a painting that was ancient already then.”

A beautifully presented elk among the Haukkavuori rock paintings on the shore of the Lake Konnivesi.

Alongside his research, Aalto has written two culturohistorical “travel books” that bring to life the living environment and daily life of people in the past by taking the reader to different locations around Finland. The first book was about the Middle Ages, and the other about prehistoric relics.

While people were painting on rock in Finland, elsewhere in Europe they were already practising farming and animal husbandry. Hunting and fishing were advanced in the Finnish Lakeland.

“Only a few thousand people lived here. It was the golden era of hunting and fishing”, says Aalto.

They often followed game along the waterways marked with rock paintings.

“The forests were difficult to tread, so the waterways were the usual passageways”, says Aalto.

In the winter people used the same routes on ice with dog sleds. According to Aalto, the Finnish Spitz resembles the Stone Age man’s hunting and sled dog. The northern Spitz breeds, such as the Samoyed, Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute are nowadays the most common sled dogs. According to genetic material, the Finnish Spitz is a primeval breed that has not mixed with other breeds, which is unusual.

“When you take into account that organic matter is preserved for thousands of years only in exceptional circumstances, a relatively high number of skids have been found in Finland. It therefore appears that sleds were the common way to get around and transport things. Nowadays you can travel about 100 km per day cross-country on a modern sled. In the Stone Age, it was probably possible to travel only about 60-70 km per day on the frozen lakes.”

According to Aalto, winter is in fact a great time to see rock paintings.

“The paintings are usually seen best when the temperature dips just below zero. Humidity, light and temperature all have effect on how well the paintings are seen. Finding the right conditions is almost occultism. Some paintings are generally hardly seen at all, but under the right conditions you may suddenly be able to see them clearly. Mainly it is the dry winter weather that best brings out the paintings.”

Rock paintings in the national park

In the Kolovesi National Park you can rent a canoe and paddle to the rock painting sites. The Ukonvuori rock painting site is 30 minutes from the shore where you can rent a canoe.

It is still easiest to see many of the paintings on canoe and in the winter on skis. You can go on an almost authentic hike to the ancient past in the Nuuksio, Hossa, Repovesi, Southern Konnevesi and Kolovesi National Parks, among others, to see rock paintings. On a rock wall in the Hossa National Park in Suomussalmi there are 61 separate paintings of which some of the more unusual ones are of bear paws and lizard-like patterns as well as people with triangular heads.

In the middle of a quiet landscape of lakes formed by the Ice Age one can easily imagine life in the Stone Age. One of such places is the Kolovesi National Park in Greater Saimaa whose labyrinthine bays are home to three sites of paintings. There is a human form holding his arm up on the steep rock wall of Ukonvuori. On Vierunvuori in the northern part of the park there is an image of a man and elk. At the mouth of Käkövesi Lake in Haukkavuori there are images of people and deer. The best way to see the paintings is by canoe. People came to see these paintings as long as 5,000 years ago. Even the landscape is the same – only the surface of the lake has dropped by several meters.

The Kolovesi landscape is typical of the Finnish Lakeland, shaped by the Ice Age. The stream of the icecap created broken and labyrinthine waterways, a vast number of islands, ridges and capes in the Finnish Lakeland terrain. Another Ice Age relic is Europe’s only inland water seal, the Saimaa ringed seal that lives in the Kolovesi National Park.

The Saimaa ringed seal got trapped there as a result of the land rising after the last Ice Age about 8,000 years ago. The connection to the Baltic Sea was lost. The Saimaa ringed seal is not depicted in the rock paintings. The most common subjects are man, deer, boats and hands.

Over 100 locations with paintings in the Finnish Lakeland

The Finnish Lakeland is the area with the most rock paintings in Finland. 140 sites with paintings have been found in Finland with over 100 of them in the Finnish Lakeland. More than half were painted on ancient islands and some still exist on the islands. Some other paintings are located at straits or at the crossroads of watercourse routes. The paintings were painted on rock formations that were visible to passing canoeists and dog sledders.

Aalto believes that the painting sites and the worship ceremonies held there were a way for the Stone Age people to stay in contact with their ancestors.

“They were probably not made for the sake of art, instead they depict important things. They may have believed that painting pictures had magical effects. The pictures in the rock paintings are from a world where man lived close to nature and where life depended on the game animals. The boat images talk about the importance of the waterways but possibly also about symbolic travel. An important element of shamanism is journeying between the worlds.”

Because the rock paintings are on the ancient water routes, they would have been good places to gather. They were used as places of worship and sacrifice for thousands of years.

Finland’s rock paintings are centred along the water tours in Finnish Lakeland.

Saraakallio rock: the largest selection of images in the Nordic Countries

One of the Finnish Lakeland’s oldest routes is the Rautalampi route. The Rautalampi route was already a significant waterway in prehistoric times. Stone Age dwellings and rock paintings have been found along the route, for example on the shores of the Konnevesi Lake. The route ends at the Saraavesi Lake at Laukaa. Located there is Saraakallio rock with the Nordic countries’ biggest Stone Age rock imagery.

About 200 images of the Saraakallio rock painting concentration have been identified. One of the mostly depicted paintings at Saraakallio is a boat decorated with an elk head. Boats are a popular subject there, along with elk, man and handprints.

An elk on the Saraakallio rock.

It is currently believed that painting on the rock began 7,000 years ago. Saraakallio rock was a significant node of the water routes. Over 6,000 years ago a significant part of the current Finnish Lakeland consisting of the lakes Päijänne, Kallavesi and Greater Saimaa, were all one lake. The water level used to be a lot higher. Saraakallio rock was then an island by which a boat route ran between Finland’s two largest lakes, the Päijänne and Greater Saimaa. A route to the north, to the Baltic Sea, also started at Saraakallio. In the middle of the island there was a hill called Ahvenpyhä. The Ahvenpyhä hill is seen far to the surrounding open waters.

The Astuvansalmi worship location

Astuvansalmi in the Lake Saimaa at Ristiina is a place of worship, like Saraakallio rock. As the level of water used to be significantly higher, the Astuvansalmi rock is a mystical sight. Seeing it from afar, it looks like a human face on the rock. Did Stone Age man see the human head reaching above the water’s edge?

“As the Astuvansalmi rock comes into sight when you approach it by boat, it is no surprise that it caught the Stone Age people’s attention 4,000–5,000 years ago”, Ilari Aalto says.

“The rock is an unusual shape. You can see the rock in all its glory especially from the open water or the ice-covered lake in the winter. With a little imagination you can distinguish a relaxed face on the right-hand profile of the rock. It’s as if the rock god was watching those approaching the paintings”, Aalto explains.

65 images have been painted on the Astuvansalmi rocks, most of which depict people or elk. Some shaman characters are visible too. One of the most famous ones is of a woman with a crossbow. Also other interpretations of the images have been made.

The Astuvansalmi rock face after image processing by Ismo Luukkonen.

The ancient times come alive with digital image processing

Ismo Luukkonen is a professional photographer who has photographed all the 140 rock painting sites in Finland. Most of the sites are illustrated on his site. Luukkonen’s website shows the original painting and the digitally “intensified” version in which the painting comes out more. You can see the unprocessed images when you move the cursor over the image.

“I started to photograph rock painting in 1994. I studied photography, and the Finnish rock paintings were a good subject for my thesis. When I visited Saraakallio and Astuvansalmi, I was astounded by the impressiveness of the landscapes and places. I put together a photo exhibition that led to some important contacts. Many people were interested in what photo processing would be capable of. With the Finnish National Board of Antiquities’ projects funded by the EU, I was able to document Finland’s rock paintings.”

“I have always been interested in ancient times. I have now expanded my interest into other Nordic rock painting sites: Sweden, Norway and Russia. Nordic rock art is alike in its subjects: they all depict elk, people and animals. But unlike in Finland, elsewhere there also are hunting depictions and drawings carved into rock.”

“At the beginning I used film but nowadays I photograph only digitally. From the beginning I have worked the photos and colour with photo processing software. It brings out the details of the ancient pictures more clearly than with a plain eye. My colour palette always follows the colours of the rock, but I always intensify the red of the red ochre and its saturation. The essential thing is to pay attention to the colour shade and the darkness of the red ochre.”

A rock painting at Pyhänpää on Lake Päijänne. Ismo Luukkonen has intensified the red colour.

“104 places have identifiable images. Winter is the best time to see the paintings as you are able to get to them from the ice. Inevitably in these places that are usually far away from people and houses you tend to think about the ancient and modern times meeting. I often get this sentiment when I am alone at a rock painting site.”

Ari Turunen (11.12.2017), Uptopoint

On dog sled in ancient landscape

Near the Saraakallio rock, the Varjola farm organises boat rides to the rock on demand. The Varjola and Rantapirtti farms also organise dog sledding. However, Saraakallio rock cannot be reached via ice due to the streams.

“Our sled dog is a Siberian husky, an arctic spitz breed that thousands of years old. The sledding is based on the dogs’ hunting instinct. 10% of Siberian huskies are fully or partly blue-eyed. This gives away the kinship with wolves,” says Timo Niinimäki, who organises dog sledding at the Rantapirtti farm.

According to Niinimäki, the Husky is a very strong sled dog that does best at 20 degrees below zero.

“At times the pace may seem quite fast when we leave a break area. We can easily reach a speed of 35 km per hour. On long safaris the driver gets more tired in a couple hours than the dogs.”

“The paintings are usually seen best when the temperature dips just below zero. Humidity, light and temperature all have effect on how well the paintings are seen.”

By boat and canoe

Saimaa Holiday Oravi rents canoes in the Kolovesi National Park that can be used to get to the Kolovesi rock paintings.

There is a marked trail to the Astuvansalmi paintings from Route 4323. In the summer, there are also boat trips to Astuvansalmi.

Ismo Luukkonen’s photographs