Henriette Storbækken has just written her master's thesis about what happened with this petroglyph. Here she holds a plaster cast of the skier that was found in storage in Trondheim.

Norway's most famous rock carving may have been preserved by a Nazi researcher looking for the origins of the Germanic people

The skier Rødøy-man was the logo for the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. But in 2016, the petroglyph was destroyed. A researcher sent by Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler may now prove to be the saviour of this 5,000-year-old rock art.

Henriette Storbækken is a master's student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). She has thrown herself into studying something rather special.

“I have tried to find out why the SS organisation Ahnenerbe was so interested in Norway’s rock carvings,” she tells sciencenorway.no.

We meet Storbækken and several archaeologists at the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim, Central Norway. From the museum's storage, they retrieve the plaster cast of the famous skier.

The cast was made by the Nazi researcher Herman Wirth in 1936.

This photograph of the skier was taken by the well-known Norwegian archaeologist Guttorm Gjessing in 1933, shortly after he had discovered the figure on Rødøya in Nordland County. Notice the horns on the skier's head.

Made casts

“Wirth and his colleagues made a total of 31 such casts of rock carvings while in Norway. They did this in August 1936,” Storbækken says.

She adds that Wirth visited the Barda petroglyph field in Steinkjer and Rødøya in Alstahaug municipality in Helgeland.

“They were both helped by Norwegians and criticised by Norwegians when they came here to take the casts before the war,” she says.

As the story goes, Herman Wirth was not good at managing money, despite leading an organisation meant to document the proud history and racial superiority of the Germanic people. 

The stay in Norway was likely shorter than the Nazi researchers had hoped.

Bildet viser veggen til museet.
The Rødøy-man is also the logo for the Helgeland Museum. The photo shows the figure on the wall outside the museum in Mo i Rana.

Fired by Hitler

The Nazis' own research institute, Ahnenerbe, was directly under Hitler's feared SS organisation.

But Wirth was quickly fired by SS chief Heinrich Himmler, possibly after Himmler had received instructions from Hitler. Himmler was very fond of Wirth, and the two became good friends, but Hitler likley did not share the same opinion.

In her master's thesis, Henriette Storbækken has sought to uncover more about the perceptions of rock carvings in Norway during the 1930s.

She also explored how German Nazis in Norway, prior to the war, were able to conduct research on this ancient artistic heritage.

Destroyed in 2016

Is it a skier?

  • Experts on petroglyphs disagree about whether the 'skier' really is a skier.
  • It might instead depict a standing paddler. He could be hunting seals or other marine mammals, similar to how the Inuit have used their kayaks in Greenland.

The figure of the Rødøya skier in Alstahaug may be around 5,000 years old.

The petroglyph could be one of the oldest depictions of a skier in existance.

Rødøy-man thus inspired the design programme for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.

He has also appeared on Norwegian stamps and coins.

But in the summer of 2016, the petroglyph on Rødøya was vandalised. Someone scratched over it with a sharp object. Other nearby figures were also destroyed.

Archaeologist Trine Johnsen in Nordland County Municipality confirmed to the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK that the hope of saving the historical cultural heritage was gone. It had been destroyed forever.

Two minors quickly confessed to the vandalism. They told the police they did it to make the images more visible.

Bildet viser en gruppe menn som ser på helleristningen.
SS Chief Heinrich Himmler visits the rock carvings at Ekeberg in Norway's capital Oslo in the winter of 1941. Himmler was very interested in Norwegian history and Norwegian folk culture.

The first Germans from Lost Atlantis

In 1935, the research institute Ahnenerbe was established by Adolf Hitler's close ally, SS leader Heinrich Himmler. It was considered so important to the Nazis that it was placed directly under Hitler's feared military organisation.

The purpose of the Ahnenerbe (‘ancestral heritage’) was to find support for and bolster the theories that Himmler, Hitler, and several other Nazis had about the existense of a proto-Germanic master race.

These proto-Germanic people were believed to have fled from the sunken Atlantis and settled in the Nordic region, particularly in Norway.

Heinrich Himmler likely held a strong belief in this theory.

He quickly found both a fellow believer and a good friend in the self-taught Dutch historian Herman Wirth. The two shared a strong interest in Germanic prehistory.

SS's research organisation

  • The idea of the original Germanic master race became an integral part of the National Socialist (Nazi) worldview after 1933.
  • In 1935, the research institution Ahnenerbe ('ancestral heritage') was established and placed under the Nazi organisation SS and its leader Heinrich Himmler. The SS was also responsible for the Nazi concentration camps.
  • Ahnenerbe's main goal was to provide archaeological, historical, and racial-biological evidence for the superiority of the Nordic-Germanic race. Scandinavia was identified as the race's original homeland. Here, the race still existed in its purest form, according to the theory.
  • A German professor of Volkslehre (folklore) was sent to Norway to ensure that the German Wehrmacht did not damage Norwegian cultural monuments when they launched a series of construction projects on Norwegian soil. Leaders in Berlin also heard complaints from Professor Hans Schwalm about the Norwegian population's lack of racial pride. This was especially true for several employees at the University of Oslo. He attributed this to Jewish infiltration in leading circles in Norway.

(Sources: Emberland and Fure (ed.): Jakten på Germania (The hunt for Germania), and Wikipedia)

This is how Wirth had more than a hundred researchers at his disposal.

He set about planning large-scale research expeditions. The aim was to map the migrations of the proto-Germanic people.

For Heinrich Himmler and other Nazi leaders, this was also about finding a narrative of the past that could legitimise the Nazis' atrocities against Jews and other inferior races.

To Tibet and Norway

A well-known Ahnenerbe expedition went to Tibet in 1938/1939. There, the Nazis hoped to find traces of groups of original Aryans (proto-Germans).

Less well known is that Ahnenerbe also sent research expeditions to Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

According to Wirth, the sunken Atlantis was located approximately at the North Pole, at a time when the Earth's climate was warm.

The Germans in the Nordic countries and Germany were descendants of this Atlantic-Nordic indigenous group.

Had superior technology

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the proto-Germanic people supposedly brought their superior technology and culture from Atlantis in the north.

According to the theory, they shared it with native populations around the world.

Bildet viser et ark på håndskrift.
A 1938 report found at the NTNU University Museum reads ‘A gift from Das Ahnenerbe by Professor Dr. Hermann Wirth’. In the margin, someone noted that the well-known archaeologist Guttorm Gjessing disputes that it depicts a skier. He believes it is more likely a boat with a paddler.

In this way, all civilizations in one way or another had their roots in ‘the Nordic race’. Or, at the very least, they had been inspired by this mythological Germanic people from the north.

But, according to the theory, the proto-Germans lost their unique greatness in this process. 

For some peoples in this ancient world, things had gone completely wrong. And the worst contrast to the noble race from the north, they believed, were the Jews.

A discovery in storage

Lene Vestrum Kirkhus and Terje Brattli are both archaeologists at the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim.

“When we discovered that we had a plaster cast made by Herman Wirth of the skier in our storage here at the museum, it struck us that it could be used to preserve the skier for posterity,” Kirkhus tells sciencenorway.no.

This cast was made just a few years after the skier was discovered in 1933.

“At that point, the figure had not yet been exposed to much external influence. We see the petroglyph much as it appeared shortly after it was discovered. The rock art image is clear, and the carving marks are well-defined," she says.

This photo shows Herman Wirth making plaster casts during the Ahnenerbe researchers' expedition to Tanum in Bohuslän, Sweden in 1935. In Sweden, Wirth faced criticism for damaging the rock carvings and was refused permission to make more casts.

Collaboration between NTNU departments

The discovery of the plaster cast at NTNU University Museum sparked greater interest among archaeologists in Trondheim in Ahnenerbe and Herman Wirth. They were particularly excited when Henriette Storbækken decided to write her master's thesis on the topic.

“We have now also collaborated with other departments here at NTNU to scan the plaster cast. We then had three copies of the original figure made, all in hard PVC plastic,” she says. 

Kirkhus explains that the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage helped fund these copies.

Kirkhus believes the project has been successful.

Now the copies of the Rødøy skier can be used for educational purposes.

How did the cast get to Trondheim?

The archaeologists in Trondheim are also curious to learn more about how the plaster cast of the skier ended up in their museum's storage.

“Along with the plaster cast, there's a note about a report that states that the cast is a gift from Das Ahnenerbe to our museum,” Kirkhus says.

She adds that the circumstances under which the plaster cast came to the museum are still very unclear. 

Kirkhus therefore cautions against speculating whether there was any collaboration between researchers at the museum in Trondheim and the  researchers in the SS organisation Ahnenerbe before the war began. She emphasises that such speculation can easily become accepted as facts. 

How the plaster cast of the Rødøy skier ended up in the basement of the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim is therefore still a mystery that remains to be solved.

Made plaster casts of 31 petroglyphs

Wirth and his colleagues made a total of 31 plaster casts of rock carvings in Norway.

Part of the story is that Wirth, after meeting with the head of the collection of Norwegian antiquities in Oslo, Professor Anton W. Brøgger, received permission to make copies of petroglyphs in Norway.

Brøgger's condition was that the museums around the country would receive copies of the casts. This could explain how the cast of the Rødøy man ended up in Trondheim.

It is also noteworthy that Anton W. Brøgger later became active in the resistance against the Nazi occupation of Norway.

In Sweden, the Ahnenerbe researchers collected 59 casts, and 16 in Denmark.

Overall, the Ahnenerbe researchers made plaster casts of rock carvings in Scandinavia, covering an area of several hundred square metres.

The plan was for the casts to be part of a large Nazi open-air exhibition in Berlin about the proto-Germans.

But the exhibition never came to fruition.

Instead, the casts were strictly guarded by the SS in Berlin. Today, 52 of these casts are stored at a small museum in Austria.


Translated by Nancy Bazilchuk

Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no


Articles from NRK Nordland about the vandalism of the Rødøy-man.

Uniforum: Ahnenerbe–fra Atlantis til Holocaust (Ahnenerbe – from Atlantis to the Holocaust), 2007.

Emberland, T & Fure, J.S. (ed.) Jakten på Germania. Fra Nordensvermeri til SS-arkeologi (The hunt for Germania. From Nordic romanticism to SS archeology), Humanist forlag, 2009.

Wikipedia entries on Ahnenerbe and Henrik Wirth.

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