A Norwegian Cruise 14

Part 14: 11th and final Port of Call, Alta, Troms og Finnmark County, Norway

This will be the last installment of our Norwegian Summer Saga outlining a cruise through the magical Norwegian fjord-scape from Stavanger to Honningsvåg.

To reach the port of Alta following our visit to the North Cape, we had to double back through the Barents Sea along the nordic coast of mainland Europe in a westerly and slightly southward direction. We sailed through the night, past Hammerfest, the most nordic town in the world with more than 10 000 inhabitants, and all the way through vast Altafjorden to the head of the fjord, docking at the pier in Alta at 8h.

Alta wasn’t only the last stop in our cruise, to was also my most highly anticipated visit of a Norwegian village. When we first signed up for a Norwegian cruise back in 2020, I tried to learn a little about the different ports of call and I came across the marvellous news of a bunch of prehistoric petroglyphs in Alta.

For a long time now, I’ve been an amateur aficionado of paleoanthropology. While living in Chicago and Houston, I had a few opportunities to attend symposia with presentations by some of the most outstanding luminaries in their respective anthropological fields of expertise. And here in France, we have had access to exhibits of prehistoric art. As a matter of fact, it was the work of a French professor, the former Conservateur Général du Patrimoine au Ministère de la Culture, Jean Clottes, who’s slides of cave paintings in the Grotte Chauvet – Pont d’Arc in the Ardèche, left an indelible impression with me. Showing one particular picture, Prof. Clottes asked his audience, if we noticed anything special. Nobody spoke up. He pointed out the three-dimensional presentation of the animal shown. The legs further away from the viewer were drawn skinnier and shorter than the legs closer to the viewer. Weren’t we taught that perspective drawing was an invention of Renaissance painters? Maybe, but their paleolithic colleagues had already figured out how to do this 3D thing. They also gave their woolly rhinos and aurochsen multiple legs to show they were running, all of it a mere 30 000 years ago.

The petroglyphs [images carved into rock, rather than painted on it] of Alta are much younger than those Frenchy animal drawings. Most of the Alta petroglyphs were created during the late Stone Age, beginning at around 7K to about 500 BCE, indicating that for long periods, this coastal region surrounding Altafjorden had become a meeting place for hunting and fishing, and possibly also spiritual activities. The Rock Art of Alta was inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List on December 3rd, 1985. It is the only prehistoric monument in Norway, consisting of 4 sites with approximately 6 000 registered rock carvings in Hjemmeluft, KÃ¥fjord, Amtmannsnes, and Storsteinen. There is also one small site with about 50 ocher rock paintings in Transfarelv. The Hjemmeluft site is the only one accessible to the public and it is also the location of the Alta Museum. With rising excitement, I got in touch with Ms. Else Poulsen in guest relations of the museum to book a private guided tour for us. But Norway remained locked throughout 2021 and our cruise was canceled. I had to wait another year, till August of 2022 to finally make it to Alta.

As in a few other ports, the dock in Alta was some distance from the town centre, necessitating a shuttle bus. In town, we visited the Tourist Office cum gift shop, where we bought a couple of books for our granddaughter in Austin, TX, and asked the counter person to call a taxi to take us to Alta Museum. While waiting, we encountered a fellow cruiser who also needed a ride to the museum. We asked him to share our cab and got to know him a little bit. He and his wife had invited their three teen-age grandchildren for this cruise. None of them cared enough to come with him to the museum, which made him very sad.

Upon arrival, the Alta Museum presented us with this breathtaking view of Altafjorden and its surrounding countryside.

After the barren Arctic tundra of Magerøya island, this boreal region had to be called lieblich, as we say in German, or nydelig in Norwegian (charming, gentle, lovely). Although Alta sits well inside the Artic Circle and is closer to the North Pole than to Oslo, Norway’s capital, this coastal area of the Finnmark reaps great benefits from the warming effect of a branch of the Gulf Stream.

Finally, during our two-hour personal tour through the Hjemmeluft site, we encountered the long anticipated Nordic petroglyphs!

And where are they then, these petroglyphs? You might well ask this, because they were hard to see at first. With the rare exception of a few loose boulders, the Alta Rock Art was carved in situ, in the granite bedrock, just where it presented itself to the hunter-gatherers those many thousands of years ago. We, on the other hand, weren’t allowed anywhere near the pertinent rock surfaces. To protect this unique heritage, we had to stick to wooden walkways, stairs, and viewing platforms that were built at respectful distances. You can just see the edge of such a platform under our guide’s shoe, who was, by sheer coincidence, a Frenchman! He was about to finish his stint at the Alta Museum to continue his doctoral research in the correlation between Sámi dialects and certain ancient cultural traditions. He used a laser pointer to draw our attention to individual carvings as he explained them to us.

We started our tour at the oldest of the carvings which were discovered along the periphery of the site, with the highest elevation and furthest distance to the sea. However, back whence the locals chiseled away, the waters of the fjord would have lapped around their ankles.

In explanation, I lifted the following paragraph from museum literature: “… The rock art in Alta is an important archaeological source of material which gives us a unique insight into people’s thoughts and rituals, social organisation, technology and use of resources. Rock art is very diverse, sometimes with large scenes depicting people and animals in various activities, such as hunting, trapping and fishing, rituals and communication. Rock art gives us an insight into real-life events, myths and legends. The figures portrayed are people, reindeer, elks (US “moose”), bears, dogs/wolves, foxes, hares, geese, ducks, swans, cormorants, halibut, salmon, whales, boats, implements and other artefacts, and various geometric patterns and shapes. The rock art in Alta was closely connected to the landscape and what happened to it as a result of land upheaval. There is broad agreement among researchers that the rock carvings in Alta were made on the smooth rock surfaces at the water’s edge. As the land gradually rose, and new rock surfaces came to light, the artists made use of these for their carvings. The oldest scenes are therefore high above present sea levels, whilst the later ones are lower down in the terrain. …”

At one time, people coloured the petroglyphs to make them more distinct, which has since become controversial within the scientific community. But it’s risky to try to remove the paint, so for the time being it stays.

The lower figure with the cute ears is a bear. In olden belief systems, bears were considered to be magical. They were believed to be able to live in all Three Worlds. Not only can they live on land like humans, but they can also exist under the sea and in the realm of the spirits. In their different manifestations, bears can either help humans or destroy them.

In the younger carvings, we saw an increase in human figures that were shown as they interacted with their environment. In addition of the introduction of symbolic images, the carvings depicted humans as they fished and hunted, often by building fences to corral reindeer.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus, Cervidae) have always been part of the life of circumpolar people, although often in different ways and by different names: Caribou live in America, reindeer in Europe and Asia. Let me emphasize that reindeer and caribou are genetically compatible animals, as both are deer of the genus Rangifer, which includes more than 20 known subspecies with diverse habitats, sizes, behaviours and social structures. Reading about the critters for this post, I learned that American caribou have never been domesticated, something I hadn’t knew. On the other hand, European and Asian reindeer have a long tradition of domestication, after a fashion anyway. You may remember from the previous post that the freely roaming reindeer on Magerøya Island are considered domesticated. Yet, they swim across to the mainland on their own to be fed by their ‘owners’ during the wintertime when there is no longer enough forage on the island. Reindeer don’t ‘like’ human fences that inhibit their migratory tendencies, yet they don’t mind being milked. Go figure, right? Since the Middle Ages, there are also reindeer that are truly domestic animals. They are used for the same jobs that are commonly performed by cattle and horses in more southerly regions.

In the late 19th century a missionary/US bureaucrat in Alaska named Sheldon Jackson was instrumental in introducing reindeer to North America as a means to improve the economic situation of indigenous peoples during a period when whaling and salmon fishing went through a slump. Equally, caribou had become rare in the region. After governmental approval of the scheme in 1892, 1 200 Russian and Finish reindeer were shipped to Alaska. Young men from local tribes very invited to learn the business of herding and reindeer husbandry from the Sámi herders who had come over with the animals. For each year a youngster completed during their 5-year apprenticeship, they were given a reindeer, thus laying the foundation for their own herd (We talk about exploitation of indigenous peoples by white administrators another time). Fast forward for one century when something unexpected occurred on the Seward Peninsula, where reindeer herding had since became a well established family enterprise in many villages, complete with the associated trade in skins, antlers, sausage, and so forth. As it happened, ever more numerous caribou herds returned to their ancestral migratory routes through the peninsula. They didn’t just nibble the reindeer’s fodder, they also captured reindeer hearts here and there, making friends with the reindeer ladies, and … taking their new sweethearts along on their migratory journey! A study of 10 villages demonstrated a herd loss of ~ 80% in 15 years*, making the industry obsolete. Reindeer lost to caribou, domesticated animals lost to their wild brothers and sisters. Oh, the irony of it.

For me, the picture below showed one of the most amazing petroglyphs in the Hjemmeluft site. It depicts a fishing scene of unusual dimensions. We see a canoe-like boat with an elaborate bow carving, but without people, from which a very, very long line extends deep into the sea, and at the far end of this line we find a large fish. Since the fish seems more substantial than the boat above, I could well imagine this might be an Atlantic halibut, Hippoglossus hippoglossus, Pleuronectidae, a bottom-dwelling flatfish that can reach 5 m / 16 ft in length and weigh up to 300 Kg / 660 lbs with a lifespan of 50 years. Down there in the black depth of a hostile sea, this fish, it carries more gravitas than the invisible people above hoping to reel him in. Help is needed, hoped for, and possibly given through the presence of a spirit bear. Can he coax the grandfather fish to give up his existence to benefit the villagers on the shores of Altafjorden?

I’d like to close my Norwegian report with one last picture of the gorgeous, varied, ancient Norwegian landscape we were so privileged to enjoy throughout our cruise. 

P.S. Since ’tis (almost) the Season and we’ve been going on and on about reindeer, I want to attach a link to the guys of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game who put together a lovely ‘Species Profile’ of Rangifer tarandus sp. saintnicolas magicalus that your children or grandchildren might enjoy exploring with you: 

SANTA’S REINDEER R.t. saintnicolas magicalus

[* Herd loss data from: “Factors in the Adaptation of Reindeer Herders to Caribou on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska”, ARCTIC ANTHROPOLOGY, 42 (2):36-49, January 2005] 

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