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World Heritage Site Tanum Rock Carvings

Tanum is a quick hour and a half drive north from Gothenburg. Even though it was January, Jim and I jumped into the jeep and headed up. If it’s one thing we don’t want to pass up it’s a chance to see rock carvings. We’ve seen them in New Mexico, Portugal, Botswana, and now we wanted to see them in Sweden. However, we weren’t surprised when we reached the museum to find it closed up tight for the winter.

Viking boat and warriors at the Tanum Rock Carvings, Sweden.
As you can see the carvings are situated on exposed rock surfaces, many of which were covered with ice.

Luckily, there are plenty of signs around, and since we were there, we started wandering and reading. Turns out that you don’t really need to go into the museum at all to visit the rock carvings. They are, afterall, part of the nature. We had just assumed that like other rock carving sites we’ve visited, the carvings would be difficult to find or under a protective covering of some sort. Thankfully, most of them weren’t, and Jim even found a brochure box in the parking lot so we were able to find our way around pretty easily.

There are three groups of paths with interpretive signs. The day we were there, in January, it was bitter cold. Frost still clung to the grasses, and the snow on the railings were beginning to crystalize. It was beautiful, but cold. Also, it meant that most of the rock carvings were covered in ice. Apparently the people purposely etched these designs into rocks that water would run over, either for religious reasons or so that they would mimic movement. We really don’t know why, but it makes for a difficult time viewing some of them as you can see below.

Viking boats at the Tanum Rock Carvings, Sweden.
Boats, sleds, and people. Carvings that are pretty unusual compared to other sites around the world.

As the University of Gothenburg studies the carvings, they paint them with red so they do stand out more than just an original etching would. If you are interested in the university’s studies, you can go here to find out more about their process.

We love taking a glimpse into how life was lead thousands of years ago, by the artists’ hands. The people that etched these Bronze age carvings were especially detailed. It may be the only carvings we’ve seen that include man-made transportation like sleds and boats. Another detail is that the engravers made a point to show us which of the people were men and which were women. Most of the other carvings I’ve seen only included symbols and animals, and very rarely men. I don’t think I’ve ever seen women before. Needless to say, Tanum was a fascinating site and I think Jim and I will have to go back if we are again in the area so we can do all the sites in more agreeable temperatures.

Tanum Rock Carvings, Sweden, in winter.
As you can see the ice flows right over the images in the winter, and water flows over them in summer. Why did the engravers put them in such places? We still don’t know.

As I said, Tanum is an easy day trip out of Gothenburg, but you can also make it a couple of days. Right across the street from the museum is a wonderful camping ground to stay in, which is what I will do next time.

Do you enjoy rock art? What are some of your favorite sites? Jim and I want to make it to the French cave paintings in Lascaux in the not too distant future. Have you been there? Any hints?

Note: Updating this in August of 2013…We just visited a similar rock carving site in Lista, Norway. 

Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.


Tuesday 3rd of June 2014

Ooh, you've been to Lista. How cool. I'm there almost every summer :) Never thought to stop by the rock carvings in winter. They look quite different with the snow and ice; even more primeval. Love it.

Corinne Vail

Tuesday 3rd of June 2014

Sophie, We loved that part of Norway, and we saw rock carvings there too. It was great.