Is This 10,000-Year-Old Carving Europe’s Oldest Known Depiction of a Boat?

New analysis suggests that rock art found in Norway portrays a sealskin vessel used by Stone Age Scandinavians

boat carving
This tracing shows the shape of the carving, which is only visible under certain weather conditions. Jan Magne Gjerde / Oxford Journal of Archaeology

A rock carving discovered in Norway may be one of Europe’s earliest examples of art depicting a boat, reports Garry Shaw for the Art Newspaper.

The image, found in Valle, on the Efjorden fjord in Nordland County, appears to be a life-size representation of a boat made from sealskin, writes Jan Magne Gjerde, a scholar at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

Based on the height of the surrounding shoreline, which was higher in the Stone Age than it is today, Gjerde dates the art to between 10,000 and 11,000 years ago. That makes it one of the oldest images of a boat in the world. Previously, the oldest known depictions of boats in northern Europe dated to between 7,000 and 7,500 years ago.

The image—a white outline carved into a rock surface—was probably originally about 14 feet long. A portion of the drawing eroded away over time, and it is now only clearly visible under particular weather conditions. A second carving at the site also appears to show a boat, but just a small part of it remains.

Retired geologist Ingvar Lindahl originally discovered the carving in 2017, as the Local Norway reported at the time.

“This is an extremely important development, a global sensation in fact, and will enter the history of research in a very, very big way,” Gjerde told state-run broadcaster NRK in 2017, per a translation by the Local. “… You can see the keel line and the railing line, and as you move forward you can see a really beautiful finish, forming the boat’s bows.”

skin boat
The carving may depict a skin boat similar to the umiak vessels used by the Inuit. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The location where Lindhal found the boat carving was already known for its life-size carvings of animals, including seals and reindeer, from the same time period. According to Gjerde, some large figures would have been visible to people on boats in the water from more than a quarter of a mile away and may have acted as signposts.

“Socializing the seascape by making highly visible rock art would be an important means of communication for the pioneer people in this area,” he writes.

Gjerde argues that the carving likely reflects the importance of skin boats to the first Stone Age people to settle the region. Sealskin boats were light enough to carry and could move quickly while carrying multiple people and items.

“Such a vehicle would be ideal for colonizing the seascapes in northern Norway during the Early Mesolithic,” the archaeologist adds.

The earliest known remains of a Scandinavian boat, the Hjortspring Boat, are wooden planks dated to between 350 and 300 B.C. Researchers have debated whether people prior to that period used skin boats or dugout canoes. According to Gjerde, the value of lightweight skin boats is evidenced by comparable—and much more recent—Inuit vessels.

“The umiak of the Inuit of southwest Alaska was so versatile that it was adopted by 19th-century whalers in preference to the New Bedford whaling boat,” he writes.

Given the particular light conditions necessary to see the boat carving, Gjerde suggests that there may be more undiscovered images in the area.

He concludes, “It is very likely that there are more figures at Valle and more sites with rock art in the Ofoten area in northern Norway.”

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