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Department of Archaeology


Visual Perception and Cognition in the Rock Carvings of Northern Russia


Director: Dr L. Janik

This project is intended to increase understanding of how archaeologists, as observers, are able to "see" in visual depictions created over four thousand years ago.

In order to achieve this, the study draws on the ideas and methods used in art history to approach the understanding of visual perception and cognition of vision.

The area of research encompasses Karelian rock art created by the prehistoric fisher-gatherer-hunters of Northern Europe. Among various images located in the area of "White Sea petroglyphs", the two complexes of so-called Old and New Zalavruga have been focused upon. They are located on the Great Malinin Island, one of the few islands located in the estuary of the River Vyg just by the White Sea, both complexes are dated between 4300 and 3300 BP. This research also contributes to understanding the prehistoric heritage and early art of Northern Europe by collaboration with Russian (Dr. N. Lobanova, Russian Academy of Science, Petrozavodsk Branch, Russia), Polish (Ms. K. Szczesna, College of Applied Arts, Rzepczyn, Poland) and Norwegian scholars (Prof. K. Helskog, and J-M. Gjerde, University of Tromso, Norway).


First Season: Summer 2002

The research season aimed to explore the role of rock surface in the creation of visual images by prehistoric fisher-gatherer-hunters, by producing three-dimensional images of rock surfaces. The main questions were:

  • Were the carvings adjusted to produce pictures without distortions on an otherwise uneven rock surface?
  • Was the rock surface included in the composition?
  • What role did the rock surface play in composition?

The brief answer to these questions can be introduced in this short presentation by looking at two visual presentations of the fragment of Composition IV, New Zalavruga where the skier is sliding down-slope in pursuit of the elk.






The first image presents an up-to-date understanding of the rock surface as a flat entity, where the three dimensions of the rock surface and their use in the context of cognition and vision are ignored. The second image is a result of current research reflecting the three-dimensional image of rock surface and rock carving placement upon it. The image has been generated by Dr C. Roughly by correlating photographic images of the rock surface with the relative height of the rock face. Such an approach allows us to conclude that the prehistoric fisher-gather-hunters of Northern Europe used the rock surface as an active part of the visual image, e.g. when the rock face falls downwards the skier slides down the slope, when the surface rises he uses his skis to walk up the hill. Such an example indicates the deliberate use of the rock face as a landscape and demonstrates the cognitive aspects of visual perception used in North European prehistoric art.

Second Season: Summer 2003

This year we concentrated on particular imagery relating to the plant kingdom. Plants in general are rarely represented in visual depictions by prehistoric fisher-gatherer-hunters. Among of all of the known White Sea carvings, in total about two thousands images, only three are considered to be of trees. These images are all located in the complex of New Zalavruga, Groups IV, XII and XX.

We once again used the recording techniques developed during the previous season, in which the rock surfaces were surveyed and subsequently reconstructed in virtual form using GIS and digital imagery with orthorectification. The latter allowed us to correct lens distortion during the virtual reconstruction of the rock surfaces. In addition, this year's recording strategy included taking rubbings of the rock surfaces, which will help with understanding the nuances of the carvings of the trees and possibly in distinguishing the species of particular trees. Rubbings of the rock surfaces were obtained by placing paper on the rock surface and rubbing on it powdered graphite. This technique permitted us to copy the image as carved into the granite surface by the prehistoric carver, while at the same time recording all marks on the rock, thus providing a one to one copy of the carvings and their background.


In trying to interpret the role of plants in the art of food procuring communities, it is significant to differentiate between the narrative contexts in which trees appeared, and the possible relationship between plant imagery and the place it occupied within the overall visual composition. The trees in Groups IV and XX are the part of hunting scenes.

Group IV portrays a winter scene where the hunter on skis walks with the bow ready to release another arrow into the animal sitting on top of the tree; the animal is already struck by a number of arrows. The tree appears low in height as though it is a shrub. That this is indeed a winter scene, besides the hunter's use of skis, is further indicated by the lack of leaves on the branches sticking out of the single stem.




The tree in Group XX is standing alone in the midst of a hunting scene. As in the previous image there is a creature at the top of the tree. This time it is a bird struck by one arrow while hunters peruse other birds, and pictured by wounded or dead birds are carved nearby.

That the hunters are without skis suggests that this scene is not taking place in winter. However, the tree looks similar to that in the previous Group IV scene, with one stem out of which stick short leafless branches. The trees seem not to be the subjects of the depictions, but part of wider visual narratives linked with hunting.

Another possible image of a tree is seen in Group XIII. In the case of this depiction it is difficult to conclude that it is a tree due to its location and association with other elements, like boat and an unspecified object.

Petroglyphs are amongst the few archaeological remains deliberately created in such form by prehistoric carvers, which have survived almost untouched until the present day. Karelian rock carvings therefore provide us with a unique opportunity to search for the cognitive, artistic, and social role that they played in the visual narratives of prehistoric peoples.


All contents © L. Janik - website by - September 2003

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