Carving out Some Time for Bronze Age History on the West Coast of Sweden

Three thousand years ago, long before Instagram, email and even pen and paper, the Bronze Age inhabitants of northern Bohuslän, on Sweden’s rocky west coast, communicated in a cruder but more lasting way: rock carvings. On the region’s exposed granite bedrock, scoured and polished smooth by the passage of glaciers, they etched out tens of thousands of images of people, animals, ships and other motifs from their lives and mythology. The area around the town of Tanum, in particular, was an epicenter of Bronze Age artistry, with the highest concentration of such rock carvings in all of Europe.

The quantity and quality of the Tanum Bronze Age rock carvings are so impressive, in fact, that the 45 square kilometer area where they are located was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. UNESCO World Heritage Sites are landmarks or areas determined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”) to be important to the collective interest of humanity on account of their cultural, historical, natural or scientific significance. Fifteen of the world’s 1,092 UNESCO World Heritage Sites are in Sweden. The Tanum site happens to be practically in my backyard.

I visited the Tanum rock carvings with my two daughters, my sister and her two kids last month while on vacation at my family’s summerhouse near Strömstad, about 35 kilometers north of the UNESCO site. We went to Vitlycke, one of Tanum’s four separate visitor areas, which in addition to rock carvings, has a small but excellent museum and a reproduction of a Bronze Age farm. We began at the farm, exploring the bulky “longhouses” where several generations of Bronze Age families, and sometimes their animals, lived under one all-encompassing and steeply sloped thatched roof. In one of these, a wild-haired woman, costumed in brown burlap, beat on a sort of Bronze Age drum, singing hauntingly in the smokey haze of a fire built on the dirt floor.

After visiting the farm and buying a few souvenirs for the kids in the museum gift shop, we assembled outside with a busload of Danish retirees for the 11:30am English language tour of the rock carvings. (While visitors can explore on their own, the museum offers free docent-led tours during the summer.) Our guide provided a brief crash course in Scandinavian Bronze Age history, and then escorted us all across the road to the Vitlycke rock panel, a huge expanse of light gray granite spread across a sloping, wooded hillside. This was apparently one of our Bronze Age ancestors’ favorite places to carve, with over 500 images dating from around 1700 B.C. to 300 B.C. White on black when they were created, the carvings have been painted blood red and the rock panel scrubbed clean and treated with chemicals to make the drawings more visible and to protect them from erosion.

In addition to the new color scheme, the Vitlycke rock acquired a new location due to decreasing sea levels over the course of the subsequent millennia. Now surrounded by forests and farmland several kilometers inland, the rock once looked out on a bay from which the people who lived here launched their boats into the North Sea. For this reason, some experts believe that the Vitlycke panel may have served as a prehistoric message board directed at incoming and outgoing boat traffic.

Our guide did a great job pointing out and explaining the significance of the various types of images that cover this rock slab, now and then posing questions to the group. Aside from the mysterious “cup marks,” simple dots that may symbolize death, fertility, the sun or moon, the most common rock carving found at Vitlycke, and throughout Bohuslän in general, is the ship. Based on the shape of the bow and stern — curved outward versus inward — it is possible to distinguish early from late Bronze Age ship carvings. Weapons, such as spears, shields and axes, and stick-like four-legged animals are also popular themes. A single, small whale is a cute but rare depiction of marine life.

There are also many human figures etched into the Vitlycke rock face, the vast majority of them men. When our guide, with a twinkle in her eye, asked the group how we could tell the men from the women, I couldn’t resist calling out the all too obvious answer, “long penis!” to the mortification of my ten and twelve year-old daughters and their ten and thirteen year-old cousins.

Women, on the other hand, only three of whom can be found at Vitlycke, typically sport a long hair plait that looks a bit like a floppy rabbit ear. One of these rabbit ladies is part of the famous “Bridal Couple” rock carving (also known as the “Lovers” or the “Holy Wedding”), depicting a man and woman standing together in an embrace, with another man, ax raised overhead, nearby. This may show a ritual wedding, a sort of fertility rite that would have been performed to assure a fruitful harvest and healthy livestock, the man with the ax conducting the ceremony and bestowing a blessing on the couple.

When the tour ended, we broke away from the Danes and hiked up through the woods to the top of the hill. Here we found two burial mounds from the late Bronze Age: enormous piles of granite boulders, presumably covering the long decayed bodies of prominent members of the prehistoric Vitlycke community. There were also expansive views across the undulating, pale green fields of the Tanum plains, conjuring images of the sea that used to be there.

Although I would have liked to have stopped to see the other three visitor areas in the Tanum World Heritage Site, such as the Litsleby rock with its 2.3 meter tall “Spear God” carving, the kids were hungry and still too traumatized by my utterance of the “p” word to handle any more Bronze Age history. So we piled into the car and headed west for lunch in nearby Grebbestad, leaving the other Tanum stones unturned for another day.