Alta, Norway 2018

     On July 7th, 2018, I drove north from Narvik, Norway to explore the  Felszeichnungen, (rock carvings) near Alta, Norway.

Felszeichnunen site near Alta Norway

     The rock carvings in Alta, (pictured below), bears the traces of a settlement dating from around 4,200 to 500 BC. The rock art constitutes the most important piece of evidence documenting the existence of human activity on the fringes of the Far North in prehistoric times – hence its status as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Pictured below, the wide variety of imagery used in these pictographs and carvings suggests a culture of hunter-gatherers who are thought to be descendants of the Komsa, a Stone Age society that developed along the Norwegian coast and increased in number during the late Ice-Age.

Lower pictographs found at the Felszeichnungen near Alta, Norway

     During the Ice Age, Scandinavia was pressed down by a thick layer of ice.  When the ice melted, the landmass rebounded–quickly at first, but more slowly as the pressure wore off.  People made carvings on the rock slabs by the shore.  When new bedrock emerged from the sea, it was also put to use.  This is why the oldest carvings are the most elevated today, while the most recent are at the lowest.  The site is constantly rebounding.

Higher-elevated pectographs found at the Felszeichnungen near Alta, Norway

In addition, there was an impressive display of objects that have been found in the area surrounding Alta, an exhibition on the Sami culture (thought to be likely descendants of the Komsa people), and an exhibit about the aurora borealis (the spectacular Northern Lights).

     The Sami, (local indigenous people) imagined that the northern lights were their heavenly helper who could be summoned to settle disputes.  The northern lights of the two opponents met for a battle in the sky, while both chanted louder and louder to urge their lights on to victory.  If the lights grew weaker, illness was to be expected; if they went out, death awaited.  In the land of the Sami, it was vital not to tease the northern lights.  They could cut off your head. Women could not go bare-headed under the northern lights, because the lights would drag their hair out. 

      At the Felszeichnungen Museum, I found a display about the northern lights.

A Sami “Goahti” near Alta, Norway

     Of all the indigenous cultures existing or that have existed, the Sámi are one of the most diverse and unique in language, history, and culture. Upon a closer examination of the cultural approach to architectural structures one can glean not only a more comprehensive understanding of social and economic constructs within the Sámi, but also a more intimate understanding, specifically through their approach to building architectural structures (picture above), of a well-integrated relationship with nature and climate.

     In 1839, King Louis Philippe of France equipped a scientific expedition to northernmost Europe and Svalbard aboard the ship, “La Recherché”.  It’s leader was Paul Gaimard, a naval physician and naturalist.  Norwegian and Swedish scientists took part.  Louis Phillippe was the first to encourage international cooperation to research natural phenomena in the Arctic.  The expedition reached Alta in August 1838.  The scientists took rooms in Madam Klerck’s guesthouse in Bossekop.  Five members of the expedition spent the winter here.  Three observatories were built, one for astronomy, one for meteorology and one to study magnetism.  The northern lights were studied throughout the expedition and the drawings below were made.

Drawings found at the Felszeichnungen Museum near Alta, Norway
Drawings of the northern lights over Bossekop in Alta in 1839 Jan. 12th.

     For the next several years, the main Norwegian observatory was located at Breverud in Bossekop so that the measurments could be compared with those obtained by the research  expedition.  Magnetic measurements were made and weather observations were recorded hourly, day and night. 

     Sophus Tromholt, (pictured below), an aurora scientist, set up an observatory in Kautokeino.  He and Sksel Steen made simultaneous observations at kautokeino and Bossekop to be able to calculate the height of the northern lights. 

     Sophus Tromholt found that the average height of the aurora was 113 km.  He was also one of the first to realise the connection between the occurrence of sunspots and the frequency of the aurora sittings.

     Sophus Tromholt was the first person who managed to photograph the northern lights.  He did this in 1885 in Kristiania (now Oslo).  He used an exposure time of 8 minutes.   

Tromholt  photographing the northern lights in 1885

    Systematic photography of the northern lights from Bossekop in Alta began in 1910.  Professor Carl Stormer was in charge of this work.  In the course of more than 40 years, he took 100 000 photographs of the northern lights to map their height and shapes.

Some of Stormer’s photos found at the Felszeichnungen Museum near Alta, Norway

     Most of the northern lights are located between 90-150 km above ground.  Exceptionally they can be up to nearly 500 km, but never lower than 90 km.

     Presently, Alta, Norway is one of the world’s best locations to observe the northern lights.

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