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Stone Age human images in Finland

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(Original article 10/12/2017)

Stone Age human images or anthropomorphic figurines found in Finland are the images of rock paintings, amber pendants in a form of a human face, clay figurines and some single sculptures or objects representing a human.

The Stone Age human and animal images and figurines are usually thought to be related to the beliefs or religion.

Ancient religion in Finland

The knowledge about the old religions in the area of Finland is based on the information about the forager people living nearby and oral tradition. Archaeological material like the rock paintings, figurines and burials are also part of the research material.

Based on these, it is believed that the ancient Finnish religion was animistic. In animism, everything has a soul or a spirit: people, animals, plants and also abiotic things like rocks and cliffs. Especially, the formations with an extraordinary appearance, like the human form, were probably worshipped.

The primitive forager people believed that people had three souls:

1. the soul of a body that maintained the life

2. the free soul that contained personality and consciousness; this could leave the body for example during the sleep

3. the “haltija” soul that maintained the well being of the person

In the underworld, everything was just like in the world of the living but contrariwise: everything was upside down, right was on the left and everything that was broken in the ordinary world was unbroken in the underworld.

Human shaped cliff

A cliff like a human profile by the Astuvansalmi rock painting panel

Human images in the Stone Age rock paintings

Rock paintings were made to vertical rock walls by the water and waterways. The images were painted with red ochre. Rock paintings were made about 5000-1500 BCE in Finland.

Stone age rock painting human image

The most common subjects of the rock paintings are the moose and people, also other animals are pictured frequently. Human-related pictures are simple stick-like people and handprints. In addition, there are boat images with people sitting in them.

The human images of the paintings may have horns on their heads or a bow in the hand. Some of them have breasts so they have been interpreted as female characters or male shamans dressed to a woman. Some of the human images are in pairs and some of them upside down.

Amber heads

A few pendants made of amber and representing human heads have been found. Three of them were discovered in front of Astuvansalmi rock painting panel in the water. These pendants have been assumed to picture some kind of deity.

The holes of the pendants were in the bottom part of the face so they were probably worn upside down on the neck. This might have been because when held in the hand the face would have been the right side up to the person who wore it. Or maybe these represented ancestors who lived in the underworld and thus would have been upside down.

Amber pendant in the shape of a human head

One of the amber pendants of Astuvansalmi. Picture by Bäckman Ritva 1990 Museovirasto – Musketti

In addition to the amber heads and paintings, the rock itself at Astuvansalmi resembles a human profile (see the picture above), so it is probable that this place was an important cult centre once.

Clay figurines

Clay figurines depicting people and animals have been found at Neolithic Comb Ceramic dwelling sites. There are three types of figurines:

1. Paimio type of the earlier Comb Ceramic Culture: characters have incised decoration, holes for the attachment and traces of red ochre. These are always broken when found.

2. The later typical Comb Ceramic clay figurines can also be animals. They depict only the head and the rest of the body is bent, like a worm.

Stone age human clay figurines

Paimio type worm-like clay figurines and a more human-like character of the Typical Comb Ceramic Culture at the National Museum of Finland

3. The Åland Pitted Ware Culture figurines represent more naturalistic people. They have incised lines, punctuates, holes and traces of the red ochre. These too are always broken.

Stone age human clay figurine

A clay figurine from Jettböle, Jomala of Åland with it’s disc-like face and dot decoration. Picture: National Board of Antiquities – Musketti

Single human sculptures

A wooden deity of Pohjankuru

At the end of the 19th century, a wooden human image was found near the Pohjankuru station in Raseborg. This is the only wooden human sculpture of the prehistoric time preserved in Finland.

The face of the image has been carved into a pine trunk. It is believed that the face once was a part of a pole which has counterparts in the Ural region. The sculpture is dated to the Comb Ceramic Stone Age.

Stone age human image objects

Ukko of Kiuruvesi and the wooden deity of Pohjankuru at National Museum of Finland

Ukko of Kiuruvesi

The axe dated to the end of the Stone Age with a human face has been found in Kiuruvesi, Northern Savonia. The axe is finished carefully but the face is suggestive. It is likely that the axe was not meant for the use but was an offering left in the water.

The beliefs reflected in the human images

The human figurines and images of the Stone Age are always very suggestive and lacking personal features. These images are likely to be related to beliefs. They represent gods, dead ancestors or shamans.

Rock paintings

Generally, the human images of the rock paintings are believed to represent shamans or spirits. According to the shamanistic interpretation, these are shamans and some of the animal characters picture the spiritual guides of the shamans.

The shaman was able to transform him/herself into an animal and travel to the underworld in the form of this animal. Because the moose are prey animals it is likely that the rock paintings have something to do with the hunting rituals.

If the human characters represented spirits or deities the horn-headed person could be the god of forest and hunting called Tapio. It would fit the hunting theme with the moose. The character with breasts and a bow in the hand could be Mielikki, the mistress of the forest. Sometimes this character is called Tellervo who is a daughter of Tapio and Mielikki.

Risto Pulkkinen (the author of “Suomalainen muinaisusko” about the Finnish ancient religion) has proposed that the characters in pairs can represent humans and their souls, haltija souls that could leave the body.

Sometimes the human characters are upside down so they might be souls of the dead. Or they can represent shamans visiting the underworld. In the underworld, everything was wise versa and upside down compared to the world of the living.

Clay figurines

It has been proposed that clay figurines picture ancestors, the dead, deities or are toys. The clay figurines of Åland clearly representing women or men are decorated with lines and dots than may depict clothing, body painting or tattoo. Some of the figurines have marked breasts.

Milton G. Nunez has pointed out a connection between the patterns and the clothes of Siberian shamans. The faces are disc-like and it’s been thought that that represents a death mask made of clay. But as well it could also be a mask of a shaman.The Åland dwelling site Jettböle has also revealed traces of mutilation. Human remains have been treated like animal bones. Bones have cut marks that can be related to the death rituals and not necessarily mean cannibalism.

This has been an inspiration for the interpretation that clay figurines always found broken would represent dismembered bodies. Most probably, the breaking has had some ritual meaning. Maybe it has something to do with the belief that everything that is broken in the world of the living is unbroken in the underworld.

Other human figurines

Some of the anthropomorphic figurines and objects have been offerings to the gods thrown to the water. These kinds of objects have been at least the human-headed axe of Kiuruvesi and the amber pendants found in the water in front of the Astuvansalmi rock paintings.

Axes and hammers clearly had a mythological significance in the ancient religions around Europe. For example, fine battle-axes of the Corded Ware Culture were offered to some deity. Axes and hammers were the symbols of the gods of thunder like Ukko, worshipped in Finland and Scandinavian Thor.

It is quite difficult for a modern person to imagine what the worldview and life of a Stone Age people were like. Probably, life was a continuous dialogue with the spirits of nature through the help of rituals. The spirits were present everywhere and part of everyday life. Maybe, the tendency of a modern person to see faces in different places and objects comes from those days.

Accessories inspired by the Stone Age human images

Accessories inspired by the Stone Age human images




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