It was December and the first snow of the season was falling as the three friends set off on their weekly hunt through the fields of Ostfold, in southeastern Norway. Though it wasn’t yet 6:00 PM, the sun had set hours earlier, and except for the flickering glow of their homemade flashlights (aka bicycle lights taped to sticks with duct tape), it was pitch black.
The men stumbled across the covered farmland and came to a low boulder several feet wide. Using a child-sized plastic broom, they brushed the freshly fallen snow off the stone to reveal the outline of a ship, whose curved keel was carved into the granite about 3,000 years ago.
Magnus Tangen, Lars Ole Klavestad and Tormod Fjeld have discovered just one of more than 600 Bronze Age petroglyphs known as petroglyphs. Since turning petroglyph hunting into a shared hobby in 2016, the three enthusiasts have transformed the knowledge of prehistoric art in Norway, more than doubling the number of engravings in their home region. And while motivated in part by the joys of friendship and the great outdoors, their findings have also given serious weight to theories about the meaning of the mysterious petroglyphs.
Petroglyphs from the Bronze Age (which began in Scandinavia around 2000 BC) are common in parts of Sweden and Norway. Regions in both countries have been declared UNESCO Heritage Sites due to the density and diversity of the images, which include human figures, animals, geometric shapes and often ships. But because they are usually cut into granite that is low to the ground and easily obscured by leaves or snow, they often go unnoticed.
Petroglyphs are also easier to see when the sun is not overhead – a realization that has been one of the keys to the success of the three friends. Since the hunt for them is more of a hobby than a career – Tangen is an archaeologist who works in a different field, Fjeld a graphic designer and Klavestad a landscape architect and artist – they make time for it at night.
“This isn’t an 8 to 4 job,” says Tangen. “It must be a passion.”
The excitement of the hunt has naturally led them to speculate on the meaning of the carvings. Because the petroglyphs are often more visible in the slanted twilight rays or with oblique artificial lighting, Tangen said he believes their creators had deliberately used shadow and light in their work. Thanks to the sun’s changing angle, petroglyphs can look different depending on the time of day or season, he explained. “I think the images have to do with people’s minds awakening to the times,” he said.
That’s consistent with findings by professional archaeologists about rock art and stone monuments, in places like British Columbia and Scotland, whose features are only visible at certain times of the year. There is also evidence for another of Tangen’s theories: that some of the images were meant to be seen in flickering light so that they appeared almost animated.
Kristin Armstrong-Oma, a professor of archeology at the University of Stavanger, said “archaeologists have found evidence of burning or charcoal in excavations around some of the carvings.” That suggested fire was used, almost like a movie camera. “The living flames give the carvings a sense of movement,” she said.
The petroglyph-hunting trio began in 2016, when Fjeld, the graphic designer, was walking his dog in the countryside and found a strange mark in a rock. He wondered if it was man-made or nature-made. Trying to identify it online, he came across a website with photos of petroglyphs and contacted the owner, Tangen, who suggested that Fjeld’s find could be a Bronze Age cup mark – a simple, circular carving that has a common motif in prehistoric art.
His interest was piqued, Fjeld began to pay more attention during his walks and soon found a carving that was unmistakably man-made: a picture of a ship.
“That was a lot of fun,” said Fjeld. “So I started going regularly.”
Tangen, who had made similar discoveries while walking his own dog, joined him and soon suggested inviting Klavestad, a local enthusiast who had found his first carving when he was 10.
“We didn’t know each other, but I had never met anyone else who was so passionate about it,” Klavestad said. “All three of us are very committed.”
Since then, the three have gone out about one night a week, and it’s not uncommon for them to come home at two or three in the morning.
“Yes, our families think we are crazy,” Fjeld said.
Because so many Bronze Age petroglyphs have been made near the sea, the trio start by consulting topographical maps to see where sea levels, which were higher in the Bronze Age, would have been 3,000 years ago. Aerial photography also helped them identify areas with the low granite outcroppings favored by Bronze Age artists.
Norwegian conservation laws forbid the petroglyph hunters from digging, so they only work with the most rudimentary tools: flashlights and brooms. “It is important that we are not one, but three,” said Klavestad. “This way you can hold the light, swipe and look. This way you discover more than when you are alone.”
While archaeologists have long maintained that the carvings are primarily mythological or ritualistic, that idea is changing. “All the myths we create, all the symbols we create are always rooted in something real; they represent fragments of the past,” says Armstrong-Oma, the archeology professor. “These are extraordinary because they allow us to see the world as Bronze Age people saw it.”
In addition to engravings of people, animals and ships, Fjeld, Klavestad and Tangen have found several panels with pairs of life-sized footprints. Jan Magne Gjerde, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, said the footprints were “linked to a death ritual that symbolizes walking your last walk.” But, he added, “That’s just an interpretation.”
The boys prefer to interpret them as a sign that their Bronze Age ancestors tread the same ground. “It just gives you the idea that maybe they came over the ridge and just watched the sunset,” Tangen said. “When we found this, it was like, ‘Yeah, they’ve been here!'”
Whenever the men discover a new sculpture – they found about 80 last year – they photograph it and report it to the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Agency. It is then the job of Jone Kile-Vesik, an archaeologist, to verify the find. (“It’s usually pretty easy to tell if they’re real or not,” Kile-Vesik said. “Because they would have been made with stone tools, which give a softer cut than metal ones.”)
If the panel looks authentic, Kile-Vesik then registers it in a national database for cultural preservation. While there were a few “disagreements,” she said, most of the three men’s discoveries have validated and put Ostfold on the map as an important site for Bronze Age culture.
Fjeld, Klavestad and Tangen all said they would like to play a role in preserving their region’s heritage. But they also did it just for the fun of hanging out in nature together. At some point that December night, they reached a particularly large rock and brushed aside the rapidly accumulating snow to reveal an earlier discovery: a spectacular carving of human figures with outstretched arms above a boat.
“We call it the ghost cutting,” Tangen explained as Klavestad poured mulled wine from a thermos. “Because it looks like they’re floating or dancing above the ship.” He warmed his hands on the cup.
“I love that you can drive through the landscape and have this map in mind,” he said, “a gallery of all the ships and footprints and people dancing. It gives you so much joy.”