The Wee Folk Under the Cairn


Rock art in southern Scandinavia generally dates from the Bronze Age and depicts boats, long war canoes with lots of oarsmen. Here are some recently found ship panels at Casimirsborg in northern Småland, the new big dot on the country’s rock-art map.


Although rock art is some of the most intriguing source material Bronze Age people left behind, we have a perennial problem tying it into its wider societal context and understanding it. There are few examples of rock-art motifs repeated on bronze artefacts, and few examples of rock-art located in or near other kinds of Bronze Age remains such as graves or settlement sites. The most common link between the art and its society is when recognisable bronze artefacts are depicted in rock art.

Besides ships there are many other motifs, among which one of the most common is a pair of footprints or shoes. Many scholars interpret them as a symbol of someone who must not be depicted.


Joakim Goldhahn of the Linnaeus University has published voluminously on sites where rock art is incorporated into graves. Besides heading the survey that located the above ships, he is now investigating a burial cairn sitting on top of a rock-art panel full of child-size footprints, an extremely rare occurrence. It’s hard to say how much time passed from the completion of the carvings to the day the cairn was erected, but I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the cairn wasn’t placed on top of the carvings by chance. (All the carvings in the pictures have been filled in with non-permanent white paint for documentation purposes.)


Photographs generously provided by project team member Emelie Svenman.

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  1. #1 Bob Carlson
    May 10, 2010

    Besides ships there are many other motifs, among which one of the most common is a pair of footprints or shoes. Many scholars interpret them as a symbol of someone who must not be depicted.

    Does this imply a taboo of the sort adherents of Islam have for not depicting Muhammad?

  2. #2 Rob Jase
    May 10, 2010

    Maybe a taboo, maybe not.

    Remember Grauman’s Chinese Theater did the same for movie stars starting somewhere around 1920, not because other depictions were taboo but because footprints allowed other to stand in their idol’s footprints as a sort of sympathetic fan-magic.

  3. #3 Martin R
    May 10, 2010

    Yes, a taboo. It has also been suggested that the shoe images are symbolic sacrifices of shoes! But most commentators seem to feel that the shoe images and the naked footprints call for a common explanation.

  4. #4 kevin
    May 10, 2010

    Cool post! The footprint discussion reminds me of a story about coronation stones of ancient Irish kings which supposedly had carved footprints. The story is that earth from around the kingdom was placed in the hollow so the king could symbolically plant his foot.

  5. #5 Martin R
    May 10, 2010

    That in turn reminds me of skötning, an old land-sale ritual where the seller would place a turf from the plot in question in the lap of the buyer.

  6. #6 kevin
    May 10, 2010

    Hahaha the Scandy ritual imagination is appallingly earthbound.

  7. #7 Art
    May 10, 2010

    Looking at the depiction of what looks like boats I wonder if they are commemoration/lamentations of specific voyages and not just random art. Possibly documenting the trials and troubles with a standardized notation system.

    Seems to me that in addition to the line presumably depicting the boat there are four common marks around the boats.

    The most common one is a vertical line with a horizontal cross. My immediate impression was that this is a fair depiction of what a boat might look like if the boat suffered a knock-down. It is interesting in the second picture the horizontal line is under some of what might be a count of sailors, but not under all of them. there is separate group that is not underlined. The grouping of the hash marks and the length of the horizontal line seems to be very deliberate. Is this a way of saying the boat suffered a knock-down and a certain number of sailors was lost?

    There is also what looks to me to be other arcs seeming to indicate boats with a diagonal line and cross that might be a depiction of a mast blown down.

    Also there are several marks which seem to wrap the bow of the arc presumably depicting the boat itself. Might this be an indication they ran into a rock?

    Being knocked-down, rolled over, losing a mast and running into rocks are possibly the big three ways to go for sailors. Some also show a smooth arc on the upper right side above the boat. Might this indicate getting lost or fog. That would be pretty much cover the range of major calamities for sailors.

    If all this was a notation system some of the voyages were quite unlucky. As might be expected given the sea conditions. Near the bottom left of the second picture you have one that might have suffered a knockdown and a demasting. Did the six hash marks, indicating sailors?, are they the ones who lived or the ones washed away?

    Two vertical lines going below the boat line might mean they where knocked-down twice. One drawing near top center has four and the line is under a dozen hash marks. Were they rolled four times? Did they lose a dozen people?

    Up top on the far left, did they get rolled twice and run into rocks? Did they lose only one man? If so it would be remarkable skill at seamanship or luck.

    All WAGs. For all I know the hash marks represent the number of days at sea and the line underneath delivery of a cargo. Maybe the short arc at the bow indicates a timely and safe return to port. Possible, I guess.

    But then again is seem common to human nature to hold onto traumatic events and to want to memorialize them. To recount the bravery and hardships of seafarers in some form. Modern societies that go to sea still erect memorials to shipwrecks, heroic actions and grand voyages. Why wouldn’t ancient sailors do the same?

    It also seems to me that generally it is the tragedies that get memorialized more often than the easy voyages. Which is why I suspect they are more likely to be a litany of hardship rather than the warm memories of success.

    Sailing is always full of uncertainty. It has its dangers and modern sailors still telltales of ships demasted. Of rolling over in a storm and not knowing if she will right herself. Of being close to an uncharted shore knowing that any second you could strike an unseen rock which would allow the sea to rush in. Of being blown off course, lost, or fogbound.

    The rough outlines of sailing and sailors haven’t changed much after all these years. Maybe they have tales to tell. More likely I’m reading romantic sea stories into random doodles left by bored sailors waiting for wind and tide.

    Has anyone studied similar drawings? Is there a notation system? Does anyone know with any certainty? Is there any way to compare the drawings to any historic record, timeline?

  8. #8 Bob Carlson
    May 10, 2010

    Being knocked-down, rolled over, losing a mast and running into rocks are possibly the big three ways to go for sailors. Some also show a smooth arc on the upper right side above the boat. Might this indicate getting lost or fog. That would be pretty much cover the range of major calamities for sailors.

    Sounds like these drawings may have been ancient accounts equivalent to this recording of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

  9. #9 david
    May 11, 2010

    I would guess that the footprints are those of women. If you’ve seen the dress statues of and actual shoes of the first ladies at the Smithsonian you know what I mean. Women were often “jimp and sma'” right up to our own era, where few now are, presumably because of better nutrition, tho other factors must also be at play.

    Then I would ask an Australian Aborigine medicine man what he thought about them. That has been most helpful in interpreting the ice age drawings in the caves of Europe, and he even knew how the hand negatives were made. New insights on the foot prints might be gained.

    The main thing is to keep an open mind as evidence is awaited and comes in. We have our comeuppance already in David Macaulay’s ‘Motel of the Mysteries.’

  10. #10 Martin R
    May 11, 2010

    Has anyone studied similar drawings?

    Yes, the boats are the most common motif in Swedish rock art. See for instance Johan Ling’s 2008 book, Elevated Rock Art.

    Is there a notation system?

    Not as formalised as the one you suggest, I believe.

    Is there any way to compare the drawings to any historic record, timeline?

    I’m afraid not. The rock-carving custom peters out after 500 BC. Sweden doesn’t really have a historical record before AD 1000.

  11. #11 Joakim S.
    May 11, 2010

    Thanks for this update and the nice photos. Do you think the rock and carvings were painted originally? I was quite surprised a few years ago when I learned about the rune stones were once painted in sparkling colours. And wasn’t Greek and Roman monuments vividly painted too? It’s so easy to think that the carvings looked like wee see them now, but could they not have been impressive pieces of art by the time?

  12. #12 Joakim S.
    May 11, 2010

    Footprints and boats (by the shoreline back then?) Women taking farewell as their husbands and sons grab the oars? Magic rituals and wishes for a safe return symbolised by the carving?

  13. #13 Martin R
    May 11, 2010

    The carvings were originally clearly visible simply because the ground-up rock is white. Whether they were ever painted is unknown. There is painted rock art as well in Sweden, but it tends to be older and located in the north.

    Yes, many rock carving panels hug the shoreline. We don’t know what gender travelled more often by boat.

  14. #14 Joakim S.
    May 11, 2010

    Sorry, can’t keep myself from sharing another speculative idea…

    The fallen king returned back home and buried on top of the footprints so that their love will always follow him. Romantic, isn’t it?

    Actually, I have a morbid and interesting late time example close to where I live. Probably hundreds of carvings with names and dates, some enclosed in hearts, have been carved on the rock face of the old execution site “Galgberget”. The oldest I’ve seen from about 1790, the newest from about 1930. I interpret it as if people have thought of this place as magic in some way, and left their carvings as spells. There’s even an example of a late Thor’s hammer.

  15. #15 Martin R
    May 11, 2010

    Any idea when executions ceased at the gallows’ hill?

  16. #16 Joakim S.
    May 11, 2010

    I have a vague memory that says that the last person was executed here in town in 1821. Don’t know if it was at the hill though, could have been somewhere else by then? The gallows’ hill has probably been in use for many hundreds of years.

  17. #17 Martin R
    May 11, 2010

    We tend to think of execution sites as isolated and forbidding. But back in the day, an execution was a major public spectacle. It wouldn’t surprise me if the early graffiti on the hill were made by spectators at executions while picnicing.

  18. #18 Joakim S.
    May 11, 2010

    Wouldn’t that be something? Because nowadays the kindergarten groups go to the hill and have picnic. I noticed the carvings when I went with my 5yr daughter to have picnic for ourself at the place where they go every week. At first I saw a carved name, then I realised that the rock was littered with them. Some covered by moss or barely readable, others as if they were made yesterday. Fascinating that the tradition seems to have lived on into modern day.

  19. #19 Martin R
    May 11, 2010

    Might be worth a couple of nocturnal visits with a broom, a strong flashlight, chalk powder mixed in water and a fine paintbrush. What you need to really see the carvings is oblique lighting. The ones you have found may just be the low-hanging fruit!

  20. #20 Joakim S.
    May 11, 2010

    Don’t know if I dare, might be taken for a vandal or a even worse if someone spots me. People live nearby… But you’re right, and I already thought about bringing a broom.

  21. #21 Martin R
    May 11, 2010

    You can always put an explanatory note in their mail boxes beforehand and invite them to join you at your fieldwork. I look forward to an illustrated guest entry here on Aard!

    Roger Wikell told me the other day that chalk powder may be had cheaply in small packets at paint stores. No need to grind up any lecture-hall chalk sticks.

  22. #22 Jonathan Jarrett
    May 11, 2010

    The footprint discussion reminds me of a story about coronation stones of ancient Irish kings which supposedly had carved footprints.

    This is a real thing, or at least, there is an obvious one associated with a known Gaelic royal site at Dunadd, in Scotland. Likewise:

    That in turn reminds me of skötning, an old land-sale ritual where the seller would place a turf from the plot in question in the lap of the buyer.

    This is not just Scandy; it’s recorded in Frankish and Anglo-saxon contexts too, though more usual is the placing of a turf on an altar, since, of course, it’s much more usually donations to churches that survive. For this reason, some charter-studying colleagues and I, when proposing our first session at the Leeds International Medieval Congress, wanted to call it “Who Gives a Sod, and Why?” But they wouldn’t let us have it

  23. #23 Martin R
    May 11, 2010

    Haha! I once attended a TAG conference where a session was scheduled under the heading “Origin of the Faeces”. But it got cancelled.

    What is the English/French term for the sodding ceremony?

  24. #24 Art
    May 11, 2010

    [quote]Not as formalised as the one you suggest, I believe.[/quote]

    Looking at the drawings more what I thought might be symbolic of a demasting looks more like a boat drawn at a diagonal.

    But the drawings are clearly following some sort of convention, the arc I’m assuming is symbolic of the boat is common to all, and the small vertical hash marks, what I assume is a count of people, are drawn in a very deliberate manner. Too deliberate and specific IMO to be a spontaneous or random. I get the feeling they are depicting something very real and concrete in their experience. Given the amount of work involved someone put a considerable amount of effort into it.

    An interesting idea is that instead of the arc being a boat it could be a depiction of a family unit. The smaller ‘boats’ might depict children moving off to form their families. Which would make the groupings of ‘boats’ a family or clan history. Were they known to use the metaphor of a boat as a symbol of a family unit? Does the language, modern or archaic, contain such metaphors?

    It seems to me that a detailed study of all similar markings, bronzes or artifacts might at least narrow the options. Being able to lay a few examples out against a time line by carbon dating surrounding objects would be handy. Figuring out if the symbolism changed with time and/or region would be good and give some context.

    Being able to come up with a notational system and being able to interpret even the very basics would get someone a PhD. Even if the result of an exhaustive study concluded that while there are commonalities the message remains lost to time. Just the assembly and organization of all the known examples would be quite an undertaking.

    Once collected and organized, who knows what might fall out. It would only take a single ‘Rosetta stone’, perhaps a depiction that showed more detail, or one that could be connected to to a known event, to narrow the options.

    I looked up “Johan Ling’s 2008 book, Elevated Rock Art”
    Bugger. They want $30 for that single article. Not that I would understand it even though it is in english.

    Somewhere along the line science got hard, and expensive. Used to be knowing that the brain was a filter, the heart the mechanism of thought, and blood moved like tides from limbs to core and back was enough to become a medical doctor. As long as you could talk about it in Latin.

    All this is idle speculation, a waste of your valuable time, but an entertaining diversion.

  25. #25 Joakim S.
    May 11, 2010

    I believe that a similar boat is depicted in this article? In Swedish, but with a couple of photos. The original, dated to 350B.C. was found in a moss in Denmark in 1922.

  26. #26 Martin R
    May 11, 2010

    Yes, the rock art boats definitely depict a type of craft that actually existed. As Joakim points out, an almost complete example has been found at Hjortspring in Denmark, though it dates from the 4th century BC, shortly after the main period of rock art. The consensus is as you suggest that the little vertical lines represent crew members. In some cases the oarsmen are drawn in much greater detail.

    Elevated Rock Art is a big book, not a paper, well worth $30 + p&p in my opinion. Except for some initial philosophical meanderings that are de rigeur at the Gothenburg department, the text is accessible to any interested reader who knows English. As I understand it, Ling’s book represents one of the greatest advances in Scandy rock art research in recent decades.

  27. #27 Jonathan Jarrett
    May 18, 2010

    Sorry for slow reply, Kalamazoo intervened…

    Haha! I once attended a TAG conference where a session was scheduled under the heading “Origin of the Faeces”. But it got cancelled.

    Hey, I have that album

    What is the English/French term for the sodding ceremony?

    In English, I don’t think there is one; it’s sufficiently occasionally recorded that it hasn’t been treated as a distinct institution. I don’t know about French; and I’m sure there must be a German term for it, since in a certain period of German scholarship absolutely everything was treated as a distinct institution, but I don’t know it. I have at least seen it linked to the various provisions of the Salic Law for betokening things with festuccae and I think I’ve seen the bit with the sod classed as such a ritual. But as far as I know it’s only you guys who have a distinct word for it…

  28. #28 Martin R
    May 18, 2010

    What are festucae?

    The word skötning is slightly funny because sköte in modern Swedish more often refers to a person’s vagina than to their lap. I sure wouldn’t want (a) sod in my vagina even if it did come with a piece of land!

  29. #29 Jonathan Jarrett
    May 25, 2010

    Sorry to be so long coming back on this, I’ve been swamped. Festucae are wooden rods or sticks, wands I suppose you could even call them, that turn up in the Salic law, as things that form part of certain rituals. We’re not sure how large they were or what their greater significance was. They get carried when you’re walking boundaries, broken when you disown someone, that sort of thing. They sound very ancient but I was just hearing a friend argue that a lot of the Salic law could be read as newly-minted ritual designed to provide good demonstrative moments of public witness. There aren’t very many of these rituals in the law, it’s mostly swingeing financial penalties paid to the king (which is one of the reasons it’s probably not as ancient as it looks).

    Meanwhile, I shall try and keep track of sk&omul;tning as one more of the words it’s probably just best not to use in Swedish company…

  30. #30 Martin R
    May 25, 2010

    Thanks for the info!

    When wooing a Swedish medievalist, you can always waggle your eyebrows and tell her that you would love to be a piece of turf on her… lap.

  31. #31 Jonathan Jarrett
    June 5, 2010

    Thankyou Martin! Can’t see how that could go wrong. In fact, I have met no Swedish lady medievalists to my knowledge, only a Danish one. Any special tips for Danes?

  32. #32 Martin R
    June 6, 2010

    Oh, Danes are easy, just drop yer pants.

  33. #33 Jonathan Jarrett
    June 6, 2010

    You should compile a book of these failsafe strategies!

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