Ukonsaari Island

Ukko, or Äijih in the Inari Sámi language, is located in Lake Inarijärvi, some 11 kilometres east-northeast of the parish village of Inari. This island is exceptional: it has steep walls and boulder fields. Furthermore, it is more than 30 metres high, so it can be seen from far away. Ukonsaari is the most famous sacred place of worship amongst Sámi people in Finland. Rituals have been practised there for centuries.

The first records of the sacrificial cave on Ukonsaari Island were made in the early part of the 19th century by Jacob Fellman, who was a minister and an expert on Lapland. Fellman wrote that on his expeditions onto Ukonsaari in 1825 and 1826, he had found a cave by whose entrance there was a large heap of reindeer antlers. Some of the antlers had been preserved so well that Fellman believed that sacrificial rituals had continued until the 18th century.

Ukonsaari Island. Photo: Pasi Nivasalo
Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist who became famous for unearthing the palace of Knossos, visited Ukonsaari on a summer's day in 1873. Evans reported that he had found a cave close to the top of the island and that the floor of the cave was full of bones. He also reported that reindeer antlers had been arranged in the form of a semicircle by the entrance to the cave. Forty years after his visit, Evans reminisced that he had also seen human, bear, wolf and wolverine bones in the cave. However, this information is not necessarily correct, as neither human bones nor the bones of those particular animal species were found in later studies.

Silver filigree head jewellery found by Arthur Evans. Photo: Pasi Nivasalo

In the cave, Evans also found silver filigree head jewellery belonging to a lady's circlet, which was not worn in Finland or in other Nordic Countries. It is known that similar jewellery was worn in the 13th century in Russia in the area of the Rivers Kama and Vychegda, from where the circlet may have come, in a barter deal, to Inari.  Evans took the circlet to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford but since 1999, it has been displayed at the Siida Sámi Museum (on long-term loan).

Archaeological Research in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Ilmari and Toivo Immanuel Itkonen, who had grown up in Inari, carried out archaeological and ethnological research in Inari from 1910 –1912. On Ukonsaari Island, they found reindeer antlers, charred wood and partly burned pieces of birch bark. In 1953, researchers Erkki Itkonen, Jouko Hautala and Matti Hako explored the island with the help of a local guide and visited a cave that corresponded to the description given by Fellman but antlers or other proof of religious rituals could no longer be found. The following excavation on Ukonsaari was carried out in 1968 and was headed by Anja Sarvas. They focused on the crack in the rock located on Ukonsaari's southwestern part, where they found animal bones, antlers and teeth.

The latest archaeological research was carried out on Ukonsaari in 2006. At that time, the researchers wanted to locate the previous archaeological excavations and find out whether there were any signs left of the sacrificial rituals. All the cracks in the rocks and caves were explored, and signs of sacrifices were found in some ten cracks in the rocks, where they carried out test excavations. Tests were also carried out on the other parts of the island but nothing was found apart from some 20th century coins.

The finds chiefly consisted of animal bones, teeth and antlers, which were analysed on the spot by the research team's osteologist. The bone finds were identified as the bones of deer/reindeer, goat/sheep, capercaillie / black grouse. In addition, there were bones from unidentified mammals and birds. The bones were re-buried in the same place they had been found and only a few bones were kept for further research. The bones were returned in order to honour the sacred site of the Sámi people. On the basis of radiocarbon dating, it can be concluded that sacrifices were made on Ukonsaari from the 14th century to the 17th century. In addition, they also found a silver kopek minted by Vasili Shuiski at the beginning of the 17th century as well as a fragment from a copper plate.
The archaeological excavations carried out in 2006 indicate that the ritual activities had been focused on the slope that gently slants to the west, i.e. the same area where the previous finds had been made. The large amount of deer/reindeer bones, antlers and teeth reflect the animal's central role in Sámi culture. The deer was an important game animal, and later the semi-domesticated reindeer became significant. On the basis of the bone finds, both male and female reindeer had been sacrificed, including young animals. Apparently, the best meat and the other most valuable parts were not sacrificed. On the antler finds, there were plenty of knife marks, which were not detected on the other bone finds. The second largest part of the bone finds consisted of sheep/goat bones and teeth. There are no records of sheep herding in the Inari area at that time. However, it is known that sheep herding was common in the Varanger area where the Inari Sámi people had close contacts. On the basis of the finds, however, some sheep or goats were also herded in Inari. Though unusual, it is probable that no fish sacrifices were made on Ukonsaari.

Ukonsaari Today

The role of Ukonsaari Island as a sacred place of worship for the Inari Sámi people rapidly changed when the Sámi people were Christianised in the 17th century. The conversion work culminated in the construction of Inari's first church at Pielpajärvi in 1646. The arrival of Christianity amongst the Sámi crucially changed the internal organisation of the siidas (i.e. the Sámi villages) and stopped, to a large extent, the practice of the ancient rituals. Nevertheless, some of the Inari habitants preserved their own belief system, or parts of it, alongside Christianity. Individual people and families made sacrifices on Ukonsaari until the 19th century, and it is known that reindeer antlers were still brought to the sacrificial site in the 1870s. According to a local legend, fishermen used to throw a coin in Lake Inarijärvi close to Ukonsaari Island and wish fair winds. The coins thrown by tourists onto the boulder fields are signs of a new custom related to tourism.

Today, Ukonsaari is important as a sacred place for Sámi people and as an archaeological and tourist destination. Ukonsaari is a significant part of the cultural heritage of the Inari Sámi people, and the island is important to local people from the perspective of their ethnic identity. It has been proposed that Ukonsaari be made into a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural values. Visitors must pay their respects to the island's cultural significance.


Harlin, Eeva-Kristiina. 2007. Inari 53 Ukonsaari osteoarkeologinen analyysi.

Itkonen, T. I. 1948. Suomen lappalaiset vuoteen 1945. II osa. WSOY. Porvoo.

Norokorpi, Y. & Ojanlatva, E. 2006. Ukonsaari Island. Lapland, Finland. Protected Areas and Spirituality. Proceedings of the First Workshop of the Delos Initiative. IUCN, Barcelona, Spain. s. 165-173.

Okkonen, J. 2007. Archaeological investigations at the Sámi sacrificial site of Ukonsaari in Lake Inari. Fennoscandia archaeologica XXIV. s. 29–38

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