Maritime Imagery in Scandinavian Prehistoric Art

Alongside my work with the TDP, I’ve been working on a PhD at the University of Reading, and thought I’d share a bit about this work. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of water and ships here too!

Scandinavia’s combined coastline extends over 35,500km and touches the North, Baltic, and Norwegian Seas. Fjords cut into the western coastline and large bodies of inland water lie where glaciers from the last Ice Age scraped the earth’s surface. In this part of northern Europe it’s hard to escape the ‘maritime landscape’.


This site, Simrishamn, is in Scania, southeast Sweden.
The 18×10 metre rock outcrop is covered with over
170 images of mostly weapons, boats and humans.
The sea is visible in the background as is a ship
carving in the bottom right hand corner of this picture.

Archaeological evidence tells us that Scandinavians throughout prehistory, from the Mesolithic (c. 10,000 BC) to the Pre-Roman Iron Age (c. 0 AD), often chose to live close to inland bodies of water and the coast. Clearly they would have chosen these locations for access to waterways for transporting goods, communicating and trading with their neighbours, and to benefit from the rich food supply that the lakes, rivers, and seas could provide. But the coastlines of Scandinavia boast another archaeological feature that is decidedly symbolic. Prehistoric people made rock art by carving, pecking, grinding or painting on open-air rock outcrops, giant boulders transported by glaciers, and cave walls.


The carvings depict a range of imagery including
life-size ‘foot soles’ such as these at Järrestad,
just inland of the Simrishamn site in southeast

The rock art depicts a huge range of figurative images or ‘motifs’ such as animals, humans, ploughs, foot soles, ‘sun’ images, and weapons. There are also abstract images such as circles, spirals, and small pits called cup marks. However, the most repeated figurative image that appears in Scandinavia is the ship.

The ship motifs are highly varied: some merely use a single line to portray a keel, bow and prow. Yet others are much more ornate, with animal heads on the prows and lines that represent crew ‘on deck’. There are no ships from the period contemporary to the carvings, and therefore we cannot make direct comparisons. But it is doubtless that these stylistic interpretations were inspired by encounters with real ships.


A detail image of a ship carving at Järrestad,
in Scania, Southeast Sweden.

We also see representations of ships in different media in prehistoric Scandinavia. Ships are depicted on intricately decorated bronze razors. They also appear in the form of ‘ship settings’: monuments created from standing stones in the shape of a ship. The razors are often found in burials, the ship settings often contain burials, and the carving sites in certain regions are also associated with burial cairns and mounds. At Sweden’s famous monumental cairn Kivik, rock art is found in the burial chamber. The ship was obviously a significant symbol.


A group of ship carvings at Hornnes, in Østfold,
Norway. This site is part of a larger network of
carvings in a region that includes the World
Heritage rock art site at Tanum in Sweden.

The majority of ship carvings were created in the Bronze Age (c. 1,700 BC – 500 BC) and in close proximity to the coast. This is particularly interesting as the coastlines underwent visible changes in the Late Bronze Age. When the last glacial period ended, the environment was unstable. Similar to Britain, the Scandinavian coasts were flooded in the Mesolithic (c. 10,000 BC – 4,000 BC) by the mass of water that was freed from the melting ice sheets, a phenomenon known as ‘eustacy’. The weight of the glaciers had caused the land to sink, but once melted the land began to rise back to its pre-glacial position, a phenomenon known as ‘isostacy’. In the Late Bronze Age, this meant that prehistoric people would have seen the coastline slowly withdrawing as the land rose and the waterline fell.

Recent research on sea-level changes has shown the maritime imagery to have a strong connection to the sea, and their production was perhaps affected by the environmental changes that altered the coastlines where we find ship motifs. The obvious question is: what were the rock carvings for? Did they have a symbolic, ritual, or religious meaning? Many scholars argue that the rock art is representative of cosmological beliefs that existed throughout the Bronze Age; the cosmologies they propose often involve elements of the environment such as the sea and the passage of the sun. If this true, is it possible that the disappearing coastline affected the production of rock art, especially maritime imagery near the coast? This is the main question of my current research. However you choose to interpret it, it is clear that the ship held symbolic importance in the lives of these prehistoric people and was indeed an integral part of the greater Scandinavian maritime cultural landscape.

This article was originally published in Nautical Archaeology, the newsletter of the Nautical Archaeology Society.