The sun is setting on the northern tip of Bornholm. Standing here on an exposed rock surface looking out across the landscape to the sea, it is easy to imagine this very same sight arousing a similar sense of wonder and inner peace in the people of the Nordic Bronze Age. On the same island, on the same rock and with the same view, these people observed the sun for millennia as it wearily set on the Baltic Sea in a profusion of reddish-yellow hues.
We are on the northern part of Bornholm, at Madsebakke in Allinge. The area is made up of Lille (little) and Store (big) Madsebakke and it is here, on Lille Madsebakke, that you find the biggest rock carving site in Denmark. Well-preserved, meticulously carved into the rock surfaces where the field’s topsoil exposes the protruding bedrock. It attests to a bygone age where simple depictions of horses, cup marks, crossed circles, footprints and ships jointly constituted a living narrative about the sun’s significance to all life in the universe of the people of that time.
The Hammersholm area, extending from the farmstead of the same name just north-east of Hammershus across the fields to the protected Madsebakke, encompasses a profusion of rock carvings gathered at several of the area’s large, exposed bedrock sections. Historical sources tell how rock carvings once existed at Store Madsebakke, but that these were unfortunately blown to bits in the late 1800s as part of granite quarrying in the area. The reason the Lille Madsebakke carvings have survived is simply because the rock quality is much poorer here and therefore was not considered useful enough for quarrying.
A ‘rock carving’ is an archaeological term for depictions of people, animals and symbols carved into bedrock surfaces or isolated rocks. Michael S. Thorsen, archaeologist at Bornholms Museum, explains: “Rock carvings express the religion and world view of their time. Yet they may also have had a more secular meaning for peaceful and belligerent purposes alike. Some archaeologists think that they served as a calendar of sorts, heralding different times of the year in relation to the position of the sun.”
In other words, we still do not fully understand the precise significance of the individual symbols, but it is thought-provoking that many of the ships and the spokes in the crossed circles point to where the sun rises and sets at summer and winter solstice.
“The rock carving panels with ships are found almost exclusively on North Bornholm,” Michael explains. “At the same time, we see how Bronze Age people have repeatedly carved figures on the petroglyph panels. This means we cannot rule out that both the area and the rock carvings were part of recurring ritual ceremonies.”
The rock carvings are also believed to indicate that Bronze Age people on Bornholm were in contact with areas such as Sweden’s present-day south-east Skåne region, where comparable large panels with similar figures have been found. Together with the finds of unique Bronze Age objects in the area, they attest to a vast cultural community between the peoples living on Bornholm and in south-east Skåne.
Archaeologists continue to find new rock carvings in the Madsebakke area. Michael S. Thorsen himself has discovered brand-new finds in recent years, some of them together with his family. As recently as February 2020, a new rock carving panel comprising 18 ship carvings was uncovered. Together with a nearby panel on the same exposed bedrock found in 2017, the number of ships now totals 37, making the carved fleet of ships near Allinge the biggest in Denmark. The area may contain even more rock carvings, meticulously carved into the rocks, telling stories without words.
Michael recommends going to Lille Madsebakke at dusk or after dark with a torch. This provides a unique opportunity to perhaps see more outlines and contours than is possible in daylight. It can also be exciting to bring large sheets of paper and carbon paper, just like a real archaeologist, and make a stone rubbing of the rock carvings. Lay the ordinary sheet of paper on the rock carving, and wrap the carbon paper around a thoroughly wrung-out cloth and rub it across the carving. This will clearly mark out the figure as a drawing on the paper afterwards, giving you your own unique souvenir.
The area has been interconnected by erecting viewing platforms and laying out a network of paths covering many hectares – from Lille Madsebakke all the way up to Hammershus. A hike in the area affords magnificent views and splendid scenery as you walk among rocks and abandoned quarries. But set aside plenty of time for such a visit, because it is easy to lose yourself in the many impressions; one path leads to another in this seemingly endless landscape.
On a warm summer’s day, the yellow hues of ripening grain in the surrounding fields strikingly contrast with the light from the sea and the blue sky as clouds drift lazily by. The rock carvings can be difficult to discern on rock surfaces, depending on the angle of shadow and light. What may be visible at one time of day may not be at other times, and vice versa. But exploring the site is an all-in sensory experience. Try lying down on your back on the warm earth and stretching out your arms to both sides. If you close your eyes, you can feel the site’s inherent energy. Your thoughts sail forth with the ships, and prehistoric horses dance through your mind’s eye. At Lille Madsebakke, the enchantment is still present 2,500–3,000 years after the first ships were carved into Bornholm’s bedrock.
Perhaps that’s how it all began, too. The fact that someone back then sensed the unique energy here and had the same feeling of being at one with nature where heaven, earth and sea converge. The rock carvings are a unique gift of Bronze Age people to posterity. A reminder that their hearts were also beating here thousands of years ago, that their eyes saw what we see today, and that their souls were nourished by narratives, exactly as ours are.