To mark Sámi National Day (February 6) here are some pictures of the rock carvings at Jiepmaluokta, the Sámi name, which means Bay of Seals, for the place near Alta, north west Norway. The images (recently dyed with harmless red pigment to make them easier to see) were probably produced by stone age and early metal age people whose successors went on to identify themselves with the Sámi. Some of the images are almost identical to symbols found on Sámi artefacts in the period immediately before Christianisation.
I visited Jiepmaluokta the day after The Long Spring journeys came to an end, and saw seven thousand year-old images of reindeer husbandry, the earliest known images documenting the reindeer herding that is the defining tradition of the modern Sámi. A herd of wild reindeer is being corralled: there are thirty inside the fence, where a man wields a stick to keep them under control. Six more are at the entrance to the palisade, walking in, and thirty others are browsing freely, scattered throughout the landscape. Four bears, a male, a female and two cubs, have walked across the scene from their den, leaving their footprints in the snow. On the far side of a miniature mountain, seven moose roam. In the distance, eight people form a line, I imagine them hollering to drive the reindeer towards the corral; nearby, others wield clubs and sticks to keep the bears from the deer.
Exactly when these first images were made is a matter of debate: six thousand years ago based on the rate of isostatic rebound (land rising after being released from the downward pressure of a mile-thick ice-cap during the Ice Age), but recent thinking suggests they may be a thousand years older. There were times when the ice-melt caused the sea level to rise so much that it cancelled out the land-rise and the coastline may have changed little for more than a thousand years. At other times, relative land-rise was so rapid it would be noticed during a person’s lifetime.
At Jiepmaluokta, near Alta in north Norway, each step down the path to the sea represents a decade or two along a timeline of changes that began about 14,000 years ago, at the end of the Ice Age. The land there was lifted from the sea by isostatic rebound, the rising of the land freed from the pressure of a mile-thick ice-cap. I went there at the end of May, on the last day of The Long Spring. I stopped at a group of massive, sea-smoothed rocks that emerged from the waters about 6000 years ago, and now lie eighty-five feet above the shore. When people first arrived there, they discovered a place imbued with a magic or a utility we cannot perceive today. They gathered here from distant settlements, and the shoreline rocks became their message-boards. They chiselled images into the fine-grained, grey-green sandstone using quartzite nibs: reindeer, moose, whales, bears and people. In all, about 3,000 known petroglyphs were made over a period of about four thousand years.
To walk the path from Alta Museum to the sea is to travel in time, downhill to the present. One rock, lying about sixty feet above the shore, emerged from the sea between 4200 and 5300 years ago. There are ghosts on this rock, hieroglyphs of gone birds, with messages to the future. It is a small rock, with a handful of reindeer, and three high-sided boats with moose-heads at the prow. And there are great auks, four of them. I was not expecting to come face to face with great auks, a bird that became extinct when the last pair were killed in Iceland in 1844. The guidebook has a photograph of the auk-glyphs, describing them as “probably geese”. But they have thick bills, shorter necks, legs positioned towards the rear, giving them an upright posture; one is flapping its paddle-wings, quite unadapted for flight, and has a man’s hand round its neck. It is either a very bad drawing of a goose, or a pretty good one of the extinct great auk.
A USA-based research institute, Revive & Restore, which attempts “genetic rescue” for endangered and extinct species, want to recreate the species and gradually restore it to the wild coasts of the north Atlantic. The scientists believe they can extract great auk DNA from museum specimens and sequence the animal’s entire genetic code, or genome. Those genes that distinguish the great auk from other species would then be edited into the cells of its nearest living relative, the razorbill. Fertilised embryos would be implanted into a bird big enough to lay a great auk egg, such as a goose.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.