Ismo Luukkonen


the prehistoric rock paintings

in Finland



Twenty years ago prehistoric rock paintings led me to photograph the landscape and the temporal layers of landscape. In this presentation I will shortly introduce Finnish rock paintings and my photographic work concerning them. I will also seek answers to the question what is the relation between a document and an interpretation.

Rock paintings in Finland

From seven thousand to three and a half thousand years ago Stone Age hunter-gatherers living in the area of present Finland painted images on vertical cliffs rising from the lakes using red ochre. The worldview and beliefs of the people were transformed into pictures.

During the past millennia the paintings have faded, many are disappeared, and the landscape has changed. In many places the waterline has declined, the paintings lie several meters high on the cliff.

Today, about 120 open air sites of prehistoric rock paintings are known in Finland. 99 of the sites contain identifiable figures, such as elks, some other animals, humans, boats, hand prints and geometric patterns. The others show only patches of red colour. Most of the places are situated in the South-Eastern part of the country.

The meanings of the paintings are hidden by thousands of years. We do not have direct sources to interpret the paintings. They have been a challenge for the archaeologists. The best interpretations so far are based on the shamanism practiced by the Northern people in ancient times. The paintings can depict shamans, spirit helpers, trance journeys etc.

Photographing prehistoric rock paintings

I started my journey in rock art sites in 1994 and had the first exhibition on the theme next year. From 2001 to 2005 I was commissioned to document some 80 places in Finland for the National Board of Antiquities. But at the same time I photographed material for myself. From 2010 I have continued the work as a personal project. Until now I have photographed all but one Finnish rock paintings with identifiable figures, some of them several times. And I have also visited many rock art sites in Sweden and Norway. In Finland all rock art with identifiable figures are paintings. But in Sweden and Norway the majority of images are carvings.

The aim of my work is to document the painting sites as they are today, so that the public and the researchers will get a better knowledge what the paintings and the sites look like. This means that not only the single figures are photographed, but also the painting fields, how the figures interact with other figures or painted areas and how they are situated in the three dimensional rock surface. As a part of documentation I also include a written description.

I was surprised when I first visited the rock paintings. Not by the paintings, I already had a vision what they look like. But by the landscape. It was far more impressive than I expected, and seemed to create new meanings to the paintings. This experience convinced me that it is essential to document the environment as well. The landscape at times answers why the paintings are done in the specific place. For example many of the painted cliffs have anthropomorphic features, that may have attracted the Stone Age painters. Like the sleeping giant of the Astuvansalmi cliff.

The environment can also explain why the paintings have survived over thousands of years. There is a vertical cliff that protects the paintings from weather, or an overhang creating a natural shelter.

The topographic style photographs also show how the painting sites are today, what are the contemporary structures in the landscape of ancient paintings – power lines, roads, cottages etc. The photographs reveal the temporal layers of the landscape. There can be a conflict between the ancient remain and today's structures, a visual or conceptual conflict,
or an actual threat to the fragile paintings. What are the powers that shape our cultural landscape? And how do we define the value of the environment of ancient remains?

The interaction of ancient and contemporary can create new meanings.

The indexical message of rock paintings to present viewers is that someone some thousands of years ago stood there, touched the rock and left a sign. This is what touches me in front of the painting.

Enhancing photographs of rock paintings

When I started to work with rock paintings I soon noticed the possibilities digital picture processing could offer for research. I started to experiment with Photoshop. Trying to make the faded images more visible. After some experiments I ended up using a technique where I first increase the saturation of red colour and then increase the contrast between the red and the other colours.

In this case from Ruusin Turasalo we can identify an animal, probably an elk. But there also seems to be at least one human over the animal. The enhancement makes it easier to identify the details of the paintings.

The modest rock painting in Ilmuksenvuori seems to be only a faint patch of colour. But in enhanced image there is an elk and a human on the left side of the painting.

The colour of the paintings is different in each site. And even in one site there can be a variety of red tones in a painting, depending on the original paint, the rock itself and the degree of preservation. Like in the detail in Astuvansalmi. The human on the right is brighter red than the one on the left. This means that the adjustments needed for each painting are different. The eye is the only judge.

Using digital picture prosessing is a common practice among the researchers of rock art nowadays. In Finland I was the first to show such work. In my work I am trying to combine the research and the aesthetic. So that my work gives credit to the ancient people that painted their world to the cliffs. Their message is more important than mine.

Documentation and Interpretation

If we think this kind of documentary photography or reproduction, the basic idea seems to be that the photograph should be an accurate copy of the original painted rock. Not to add any details – and not to miss anything.
In natural colours, without perpective distortions, And taken in even light. Enhanced photograph is not this kind of accurate copy any more. Even though the aim is to be objective and loyal to the original painting there is a subjective aspect when trying to improve faded images. The enhancement can be done in many different ways with different results. It is actually my interpretation of the painting.

But we can go even further. Isn't there a bit of interpretation in the original reproduction as well. When photographing I am cropping things. Not only in the sense of framing the visual observation but excluding different angles of view, the three dimensionality and the flow of time. It is not possible to show everything with a photograph or even with a selection of photographs. Photographing requires decisions what to show and how to show. It is interpreting.

And actually are we not interpreting while we are watching. If we do not give meanings – true or false – to what we see, do we even see?

What I know effects the way I look at the paintings. And what I know also effects what kind of photographs I create. Documentation is an interpretation.

Concerning the rock paintings, I can find four different phases of interpretation.

1. What is the quality of the colour? Is it human made or natural? When I call a red patch on the rock a painting, it is an interpretation based on my experience and knowledge.

2. Are there identifiable figures or lines? Clear figures exclude the possibility that the colour is natural. But there are also painted lines that do not form any identifiable figures. Like in the lower part of Vetotaipale rock painting.

3. What do the figures represent? The figures of rock art vary from naturalistic to stylistic. At times it is quite easy to identify the figure as an elk, for instance. But at times we can only be sure that it is an animal. Or in this case – are they animals or humans? Or something combined?

4. What is the meaning of the painting? What was the original meaning for the painters and their society? As we can not ask what the painters had on their minds while painting, we have to make interpretations based on the paintings and the facts we know and guess about the life and thoughts of the Stone Age people. The more we know the better interpretations we can make.

All four phases are connected. They work together offering answers from one phase to another.

We can also talk about denotative and connotative interpretations. Denotation is based only to what we see on the rock. Connotation reflects what we see to what we know. In all four phases of interpretation there are both denotative and connotative aspects. And there is no strict line between the two. They work simultaneously.

In Mertakallio rock painting we can see different things. I have here three interpretations.

1. A vertical zig-zag line and a human in forty-five degree angle.

2. A snake and a falling human.

3. A shaman falling to trance with a snake-shaped spirit helper.

All three interpretations are based on denotation – what we see on the painting. But there are also connotative aspects in all interpretations. All three are also based on what we know or believe. However the first one seems to be the most denotative and the third one the most connotative. It is difficult to make a claim against the first one. With the second – maybe you disagree with the snake and the falling. And with the third one – maybe you are more keen on the interpretations based on hunter magic than shamanism, and you think the claim is false.

The act of interpreting is often unconscious, it happens before you notice. There is a well known figure in Astuvansalmi, so called Artemis of Astuvansalmi, a woman with a bow on her hand, the hunter goddess. Or so it has been described in almost every written text since it was first published.

I am not sure about the bow.

It can actually be something else – maybe a snake for instance. This, of course, would give totally different meanings for the figure.

Another well known figure, the elk headed boat in Saraakallio. With four triagle-shaped figures on board. In the bottom of the boat there is a part missing.

Actually the bottom line has probably never been complete. Rock art researcher Pekka Kivikäs has given another interpretation: there are legs under the boat. The realistic boat turns to a mythological creature, an elk-boat.

A reliable documentation is needed for this kind of notices. For practical reasons most of the research and interpretation is done based on documentations. Poor documentation causes false interpretations.

And at times even a good documentation misses things. In the case below the main field of Saraakallio rock painting is photographed in the summer 1996 and in winter 2010. As you can see, more details are visible in the photograph taken in winter. After a cold and humid period the thin white layer that covers the paintings becomes transparent and the hidden paintings are revealed.

Another example of chances in the paintings. This is the peculiar group of human figures in Valkeisaari. Nine years has passed between the two images, and the lichen has grown and covered part of the painting. It is easier to identify the figures in the earlier one. And we can only ask when the destruction is completed and only fragments of colour are visible.


A little detail can open new approaches for interpreting rock art. This is one reason, why it is important to have reliable documentations, but it is also important to recognize the connotative aspect of every documentation.

And when doing the documentation it is essential to have a critical approach in all phases. To realize that interpreting is not something you do after the photography, but it is done all the way during the process.

This is what I have to be aware of when working with ancient images.

With my work I hope to create a better understanding what the prehistoric paintings are like, what they are about, and what they tell about the people that painted them.

To gain this, it is important to give the results to others as well. To the researchers and the public. I have published some results of my work in exhibitions and articles. But the most effective medium so far has been my web site.

But after all, I hope and believe the original paintings last longer than my reproductions.



Ismo Luukkonen is an artist photographer living and working in Turku, Finland. He also works as a senior lecturer of photography in the Arts Academy at the Turku University of Applied Sciences.

This introduction is based on a presentation given in the Helsinki Photomedia 2014 conference at Aalto University in March 2014.


© 2014