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Why are the carvings painted?

The rock carvings in Tanum can be difficult to see – many are very shallowly carved, and the panels are often damaged by weathering, making the images even harder to detect. To make them easier to see, the images on about ten of the more than 600 sites in the World Heritage area have been painted with colour.

The colour visible on some of the visitor sites is not from the Bronze Age. It is also not an attempt to reconstruct how the carvings looked when they were made and used, as there are no reliable traces of ancient paint in the carvings. The colour is simply a way to show visitors to the World Heritage site what the rock carvings look like.

The rock carvnings at Massleberg being painted. Photo: Vitlycke museum.

Were the rock carvings painted in the Bronze Age?

When rock carvings are discovered today, there are never any remnants of paint in the images. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t painted in the Bronze Age – the conditions for preserving paint on the flat panels of Bohuslän are poor. There are painted images that are much older than the rock carvings in Tanum, but they are always found in protected locations: in caves or on vertical or overhanging rock walls. Additionally, there is one example of a site with both carved and painted Bronze Age images, but the paint is not found within the carving itself.

There are over 4,200 sites with rock carvings and hundreds of thousands of individual images in Bohuslän. If the carvings were painted during the Bronze Age, there should be traces of paint somewhere, even if the preservation conditions are poor. Therefore, it cannot be definitively stated that the rock carvings were not painted during their use in the Bronze Age, but there is also no evidence to suggest that they were.

Why red colour?

Rock carvings have been painted since at least the 1940s to make them visible to visitors, and mostly red paint has been used. The reason for this colour choice was likely its ancient connection; Stone Age rock paintings were made with red paint, and some runestones also have original red paint.

There are also remnants of red paint in rock carvings that are not prepared for visitors. During a period in the late 20th century, it was common to fill in the images with permanent red paint during documentation work, and sometimes that paint can still be discovered today.

But sometimes they are white…

If the panel is dark, red paint is difficult to see. In such cases, the carvings are filled in with white paint. White paint is also used when marking carvings that are not ancient, such as images made by sailors or stonemasons in the Bohuslän archipelago.

White paint is also used during the documentation of rock carvings to capture clear photographs of the images. The paint used in such cases is chalk powder mixed with water because it is not meant to remain and should always be removed after the documentation process. Please note that permission from the County Administrative Board is required to fill in rock carvings with paint, regardless of the type of paint used.

Tips for viewing unpainted carvings

Approximately half of the rock carvings accessible to visitors are not painted and can therefore be difficult to see. The best chance to view unpainted images is after rain when the rock is wet. Another tip is to visit the rock carvings in the morning or afternoon when the sunlight comes from the side, as the shadows in the carved grooves make the images more visible. The timing of this effect depends on how the panel is positioned in the landscape. It is also possible to visit in the evening or at night and shine a flashlight on them from the side to achieve the same effect.

Early 20th century rock carvings in Lysekil, Bohuslän. Photo: Vitlycke museum.