It was December and the first snow of the season was falling when the three friends set out on their weekly hunt through the fields of Ostfold, in southeastern Norway. Although it was not quite 6 p.m., the sun had set hours earlier and, except for the flickering glow from their homemade flashlights (a.k.a. bike lights duct-taped to sticks), it was pitch black.
Tromping across the blanketed farmland, the men came to a low outcrop of rock, a few feet wide. With a child-size plastic broom, they brushed away the newly fallen snow from the stone to reveal the outline of a ship, its curved keel carved into the granite roughly 3,000 years ago.
It was just one of more than 600 Bronze Age rock carvings, known as petroglyphs, that Magnus Tangen, Lars Ole Klavestad and Tormod Fjeld have discovered. Since making petroglyph hunting their collective hobby, in 2016, the three enthusiasts have transformed knowledge about prehistoric art in Norway, more than doubling the number of carvings known in their home region. And although they are motivated, in part, by the pleasures of friendship and the outdoors, their findings have also lent serious weight to theories about the mysterious petroglyphs’ meaning.
Rock carvings from the Bronze Age (which in Scandinavia began around 2,000 B.C.) are common in parts of Sweden and Norway. Regions in both countries have been declared UNESCO heritage sites because of the density and the diversity of the images, which include human figures, animals, geometric shapes and, frequently, ships. Yet because they are commonly cut into granite that is low to the ground and easily obscured by leaves or snow, they often go unnoticed.
Petroglyphs are also easier to see when the sun is not overhead — a realization that has been one of the keys to the three friends’ success. Because the hunt for them is a hobby rather than a career — Tangen is an archaeologist working in a different field, Fjeld a graphic designer, and Klavestad a landscape architect and artist — they make time for it at night.
“This is not an 8 to 4 job,” said Tangen. “It has to be a passion.”
The thrill of the hunt has naturally led them to speculate on the carvings’ meaning. Because the petroglyphs tend to be more visible in the slanted rays of dusk, or with angled artificial lights, Tangen said he believed that their creators had made deliberate use of shadow and light in their work. Thanks to the sun’s changing angle, petroglyphs can look different depending on the hour of the day, or season, he explained. “I think the images have to do with the awakening of people’s minds to time,” he said.
That is in keeping with findings from professional archaeologists about rock art and stone monuments, in places like British Columbia and Scotland, whose features are visible only at certain times of year. There is also evidence for another one of Tangen’s theories: that some of the images were meant to be …….