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Rock art

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Rock art

In archaeology, rock art is human-made markings placed on natural stone; it is largely synonymous with parietal art. A global phenomenon, rock art is found in many culturally diverse regions of the world. It has been produced in many contexts throughout human history, although the majority of rock art that has been ethnographically recorded has been produced as a part of ritual. Such artworks are often divided into three forms: petroglyphs, which are carved into the rock surface, pictographs, which are painted onto the surface, and earth figures, formed on the ground. The oldest known rock art dates from the Upper Palaeolithic period, having been found in Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa. Archaeologists studying these artworks believe that they likely had magico-religious significance.


The archaeological sub-discipline of rock art studies first developed in the late-19th century among Francophone scholars studying the Upper Palaeolithic rock art found in the cave systems of Western Europe. Rock art continues to be of importance to indigenous peoples in various parts of the world, who view them as both sacred items and significant components of their cultural patrimony. Such archaeological sites are also significant sources of cultural tourism, and have been utilised in popular culture for their aesthetic qualities.

Normally found in literate cultures, a rock relief or rock-cut relief is a relief sculpture carved on solid or "living rock" such as a cliff, rather than a detached piece of stone. They are a category of rock art, and sometimes found in conjunction with rock-cut architecture. However, they tend to be omitted in most works on rock art, which concentrate on engravings and paintings by prehistoric peoples. A few such works exploit the natural contours of the rock and use them to define an image, but they do not amount to man-made reliefs. Rock reliefs have been made in many cultures, and were especially important in the art of the Ancient Near East. Rock reliefs are generally fairly large, as they need to be to make an impact in the open air. Most have figures that are over life-size, and in many the figures are multiples of life-size.

Stylistically they normally relate to other types of sculpture from the culture and period concerned, and except for Hittite and Persian examples they are generally discussed as part of that wider subject. The vertical relief is most common, but reliefs on essentially horizontal surfaces are also found. The term typically excludes relief carvings inside caves, whether natural or themselves man-made, which are especially found in India. Natural rock formations made into statues or other sculpture in the round, most famously at the Great Sphinx of Giza, are also usually excluded. Reliefs on large boulders left in their natural location, like the Hittite İmamkullu relief, are likely to be included, but smaller boulders may be called stelae or carved orthostats.


The term rock art appears in the published literature as early as the 1940s. It has also been described as "rock carvings", "rock drawings", "rock engravings", "rock inscriptions", "rock paintings", "rock pictures", "rock records" "rock sculptures.,


The defining characteristic of rock art is that it is placed on natural rock surfaces; in this way it is distinct from artworks placed on constructed walls or free-standing sculpture. As such, rock art is a form of landscape art, and includes designs that have been placed on boulder and cliff faces, cave walls and ceilings, and on the ground surface. Rock art is a global phenomenon, being found in many different regions of the world.

There are various forms of rock art. These include pictographs, which were painted or drawn onto the panel (rock surface), petroglyphs, which were carved or engraved onto the panel, and earth figures such as earthforms, intaglios and geoglyphs. Some archaeologists also consider pits and grooves in the rock, known as cups, rings or cupules, as a form of rock art.

Although there are exceptions, the majority of rock art whose creation was ethnographically recorded had been produced during rituals. As such, the study of rock art is a component of the archaeology of religion.

Rock art serves multiple purposes in the contemporary world. In several regions, it remains spiritually important to indigenous peoples, who view it as a significant component of their cultural patrimony. It also serves as an important source of cultural tourism, and hence as economic revenue in certain parts of the world. As such, images taken from cave art have appeared on memorabilia and other artefacts sold as a part of the tourist industry.


Pictographs are paintings or drawings that have been placed onto the rock face. Such artworks have typically been made with mineral earths and other natural compounds found across much of the world. The predominantly used colours are red, black and white. Red paint is usually attained through the use of ground ochre, while black paint is typically composed of charcoal, or sometimes from minerals such as manganese. White paint is usually created from natural chalk, kaolinite clay or diatomaceous earth. Once the pigments had been obtained, they would be ground and mixed with a liquid, such as water, blood, urine, or egg yolk, and then applied to the stone as paint using a brush, fingers, or a stamp. Alternately, the pigment could have been applied on dry, such as with a stick of charcoal. In some societies, the paint itself has symbolic and religious meaning; for instance, among hunter-gatherer groups in California, paint was only allowed to be traded by the group shamans, while in other parts of North America, the word for “paint” was the same as the word for "supernatural spirit".

One unusual form of pictograph, found in many, although not all rock-art producing cultures, is the hand print. There are three forms of this; the first involves covering the hand in wet paint and then applying it to the rock. The second involves a design being painted onto the hand, which is then in turn added to the surface. The third involves the hand first being placed against the panel, with dry paint then being blown onto it through a tube, in a process that is akin to air-brush or spray-painting. The resulting image is a negative print of the hand, and is sometimes described as a "stencil" in Australian archaeology.


Petroglyphs are engravings or carvings into the rock panel. They are created with the use of a hard hammerstone, which is battered against the stone surface. In certain societies, the choice of hammerstone itself has religious significance. In other instances, the rock art is pecked out through indirect percussion, as a second rock is used like a chisel between the hammerstone and the panel. A third, rarer form of engraving rock art was through incision, or scratching, into the surface of the stone with a lithic flake or metal blade. The motifs produced using this technique are fine-lined and often difficult to see.

Earth Figures

Earth figures are large designs and motifs that are created on the stone ground surface. They can be classified through their method of manufacture. Intaglios are created by scraping away the desert pavements (pebbles covering the ground) to reveal a negative image on the bedrock below. The best known example of such intaglio rock art is the Nazca Lines of Peru. In contrast, geoglyphs are positive images, which are created by piling up rocks on the ground surface to resulting in a visible motif or design.

Motifs and panels

Traditionally, individual markings are called motifs and groups of motifs are known as panels. Sequences of panels are treated as archaeological sites. This method of classifying rock art however has become less popular as the structure imposed is unlikely to have had any relevance to the art's creators. Even the word 'art' carries with it many modern prejudices about the purpose of the features.

Rock art can be found across a wide geographical and temporal spread of cultures perhaps to mark territory, to record historical events or stories or to help enact rituals. Some art seems to depict real events whilst many other examples are apparently entirely abstract.

Prehistoric rock depictions were not purely descriptive. Each motif and design had a "deep significance" that is not always understandable to modern scholars.

Relation to shamanism

In many instances, the creation of rock art was itself a ritual act. Some rock art has been interpreted to represent presumed cultural behaviors. Common features in rock art that are related to portraying shamans were bones and other skeletal remains on their coats. One reason for the bones would be that they were used as a type of armor for protecting the shaman on his journeys through different worlds. Devlet, the author of "Rock Art and the Material Culture of Siberian and Central Asian Shamanism" highlights, “Another interpretation of these skeletal costume elements explains them as representations of a shaman brought back to life after the dismemberment that occurs during the initiation process: the depicted bones thus refer to the wearer’s own skeleton” (43). The concept of death and revival is often associated with shamans and the way they are portrayed. The bones were usually on the back of the shaman's jacket or used on the breast-piece. Another important aspect used to distinguish shamans in rock art depictions is that they are wearing fringed fabric. There are differences in the lengths of the fringe and where on the shaman the fringe is located. In the rock art, the fringe was usually long single strands attached to different parts of the shaman’s body. The symbolism of the fringe can be interpreted in several ways. One example is, “The fringe on a shaman’s coat is an important element, which marks his or her ornithomorphic nature (i.e. the ability to transform into a bird or to gain its abilities such as the capacity for flight) ” (Devlet 44). The concept of fringe being correlated with flying was mainly used in rock art in the Altai, Tuva, and Mongolian regions.

A more mainstream characteristic is the detection of the shaman’s ritualistic drum. Even though there are different types, shapes, and images painted on the shaman’s drum, it is clearly depicted in the rock art. The range of decoration used on the drums varied from simplistic to innately elaborate. The resemblance is remarkably illustrated, “In the Altai region, images depicted on historical shamanic drums demonstrate a striking similarity with what is shown on the rock engravings” (Devlet 47).


In the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe, rock art was produced inside cave systems by the hunter-gatherer peoples who inhabited the continent. The oldest known example is the Chauvet Cave in France, although others have been located, including Lascaux in France, Alta Mira in Spain and Creswell Crags in Britain.

The late prehistoric rock art of Europe has been divided into three regions by archaeologists. In Atlantic Europe, the coastal seaboard on the west of the continent, which stretches from Iberia up through France and encompasses the British Isles, a variety of different rock arts were produced from the Neolithic through to the Late Bronze Age. A second area of the continent to contain a significant rock art tradition was that of Alpine Europe, with the majority of artworks being clustered in the southern slopes of the mountainous region, in what is now south-eastern France and northern Italy.

  • Finnish Rock Art
  • Knowth
  • Loughcrew
  • Newgrange
  • Rock Drawings in Valcamonica (World Heritage Site)
  • List of rock carvings in Norway
  • Rock carvings at Alta (World Heritage Site)
  • Côa Valley Paleolithic Art (World Heritage Site)
  • Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain (World Heritage Site)
  • Rock art of the Iberian Mediterranean Basin (World Heritage Site)
  • Tanum (World Heritage Site)
  • Tanums Hällristningsmuseum Rock Art Research Centre and World Heritage Archive, situated in Tanum, Sweden.
  • Africa

    Sites in Africa featuring rock art include:

  • Saharan rock art:
  • Tassili n'Ajjer in Algeria - national park and World Heritage Site, known for its 10,000-year-old paintings.
  • Cave of Swimmers is a cave in southwest Egypt, near the border with Libya, along the western edge of the Gilf Kebir plateau in the central Libyan Desert (Eastern Sahara). It was discovered in October 1933 by the Hungarian explorer László Almásy. The site contains rock paintings of human figures who appear to be swimming, which have been estimated to have been created at least 6,000 to 7000 years ago. Cave of Beasts 10 km westwards discovered in 2002.
  • Jebel Uweinat, a large granite and sandstone mountain, as well as the adjacent smaller massifs of Jebel Arkenu and Jebel Kissu at the converging triple borders of Libya, Egypt and Sudan, harbors one of the richest concentrations of prehistoric rock art in the entire Sahara. The rock art here mainly consists of the Neolithic cattle pastoralist cultures, but also a number of older paintings from hunter-gatherer societies.
  • Tadrart Acacus in Libya - World Heritage Site
  • South Oran in Algeria
  • In the Horn of Africa:
  • Dorra and Balho in Djibouti - Rock art sites with figures of what appear to be antelopes and a giraffe.
  • Kundudo in Ethiopia - Flat top mountain complex with rock art in a cave.
  • Laas Geel in Somalia - A number of cave paintings and petroglyphs can be found at various sites across the country. Among the most prominent examples of this is the rock art in Laas Geel, Dhambalin, Gaanlibah and Karinhegane.
  • In Southern Africa:
  • Cave paintings are found in all parts of Southern Africa that have rock overhangs with smooth surfaces. Among these sites are the cave sandstone of Natal, Orange Free State and North-Eastern Cape, the granite and Waterberg sandstone of the Northern Transvaal, and the Table Mountain sandstone of the Southern and Western Cape.

  • UKhahlamba Drakensberg Park in South Africa - The site has paintings dated to around 3,000 years old and which are thought to have been drawn by the San people, who settled in the area some 8,000 years ago. The rock art depicts animals and humans and is thought to represent religious beliefs.
  • Tsodilo Hills in Botswana - A World Heritage Site with rock art
  • Brandberg Mountain (Daureb) in Namibia - It is one of the most important rock art localities on the African continent. Most visitors only see the "The White Lady" shelter (which is neither white, nor a lady, the famous scene probably depicts a young boy in an initiation ceremony), however the upper reaches of the mountain is full of sites with prehistoric paintings, some of which rank among the finest artistic achievements of prehistory.
  • Mwela and Adjacent Areas Rock Art Site, Zambia
  • In the African Great Lakes:
  • Nyero Rockpaintings, Uganda
  • The Americas

    The oldest reliably dated rock art in the Americas is known as the "Horny Little Man." It is petroglyph depicting a stick figure with an oversized phallus and carved in Lapa do Santo, a cave in central-eastern Brazil.

    Rock paintings or pictographs are located in many areas across Canada. There are over 400 sites attributed to the Ojibway from northern Saskatchewan to the Ottawa River.

  • Pomier Caves, Dominican Republic
  • The Naj Tunich site in Guatemala is rich in rock art.
  • The Rock Paintings of Sierra de San Francisco is the name given to prehistoric rock art found in the Sierra de San Francisco region of Baja California, Mexico, created by a people referred to as Cochimi or Guachimis. There are about 250 sites which are located in the municipality of Mulegé within the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve in the state of Baja California Sur in Northern Mexico. Motifs include human figures, weapons, and animal species such as rabbit, puma, lynx, deer, wild goat/sheep, whale, turtle, tuna, sardine, octopus, eagle, and pelican; there are also abstract elements of various forms. The paintings vary in age from 1100 BC to AD 1300. The paintings are noted for their high quality, extent, the variety and originality of human and animal representations, remarkable colors, and excellent state of preservation. The rock paintings of Sierra de San Francisco were nominated in 1989 and became a World Heritage Site in 1993. See also Sierra de Guadalupe cave paintings
  • Pictograph Cave (Billings, Montana)
  • Cañon Pintado, northwestern Colorado
  • Chaco Culture National Historical Park
  • Chumash rock art, Southern California
  • Coso Rock Art District, Eastern California
  • Nine Mile Canyon, Utah
  • Quail rock art panel, Utah
  • Painted Rocks, Arizona
  • Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico
  • Serra da Capivara National Park, near São Raimundo Nonato, Brazil.
  • Vale do Catimbau National Park, Pernambuco, Brazil.
  • Localidad Rupestre de Chamangá, near Trinidad, Uruguay.
  • Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park/Áísínai’pi National Historic Site of Canada, near Milk River, Alberta close to the Montana border (A candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
  • Asia

  • Angono Petroglyphs, the Philippines
  • Bangudae Petroglyphs, in South Korea
  • Bir Hima Rock Petroglyphs and Inscriptions
  • Bhimbetka rock shelters (World Heritage Site), Madhya Pradesh, India with rock art ranging from the Mesolithic to historical times
  • Edakkal Caves, Kerala India
  • Gavali, Udupi
  • Gobustan National Park in Azerbaijan
  • Hire Benakal, Karnataka
  • Balichakra, Yadgir town in Karnataka, India
  • Kaimur district, Bihar, India (several sites)
  • Petroglyphs of Arpa-Uzen, Kazakhstan
  • Pettakere cave, South Sulawesi, Indonesia - hand print paintings
  • Pha Taem in Thailand
  • Rock Paintings of Hua Mountain in China
  • Siypantosh Rock Paintings in Uzbekistan
  • Sonda, Karnataka
  • Zarautsoy Rock Paintings in Uzbekistan
  • Rock drawings were found in December 2016 near Khomeyn, Iran, which may be the oldest drawings discovered, with one cluster possibly 40,000 years old. Accurate estimations were unavailable due to US sanctions.
  • Australia

    Australian Indigenous art is the oldest unbroken tradition of art in the world. The oldest firmly dated rock art painting in Australia is a charcoal drawing on a rock fragment found during the excavation of the Nawarla Gabarnmang rock shelter in south western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Dated at 28,000 years, it is one of the oldest known pieces of rock art on Earth with a confirmed date. Nawarla Gabarnmang is considered to have one of the most extensive collections of rock art in the world and predates both Lascaux and Chauvet cave art, the earliest known art in Europe by at least 10,000 years.

    In 2008, rock art depicting what is thought to be a Thylacoleo was discovered on the north-western coast of the Kimberley. As the Thylacoleo is believed to have become extinct 45000–46000 years ago (Roberts et al. 2001) (Gillespie 2004), this suggests a similar age for the associated Bradshaw rock paintings. Archaeologist Kim Akerman however believes that the megafauna may have persisted later in refugia (wetter areas of the continent) as suggested by Wells (1985: 228) and has suggested a much younger age for the paintings. Pigments from the "Bradshaw paintings" of the Kimberley are so old they have become part of the rock itself, making carbon dating impossible. Some experts suggest that these paintings are in the vicinity of 50,000 years old and may even predate Aboriginal settlement.

  • Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory has a large collection of ochre paintings. Ochre is a not an organic material, so carbon dating of these pictures is impossible. Sometimes the approximate date, or at least an epoch, can be guessed from the content.
  • Important rock engravings can be found in the Sydney region.
  • Mount Grenfell Historic Site near Cobar, western New South Wales has important ancient rock drawings.
  • The Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula) area of Western Australia near Karratha is estimated to be home to between 500,000 and 1 million individual engravings.
  • Kimberley region of Western Australia. Amateur archaeologist Grahame Walsh, who researched Bradshaw rock paintings in the region from 1977 until his death in 2007, produced a photographic database of 1.5 million Bradshaw rock paintings. Many of the Bradshaw rock paintings maintain vivid colours because they have been colonised by bacteria and fungi, such as the black fungus, Chaetothyriales. The pigments originally applied may have initiated an ongoing, symbiotic relationship between black fungi and red bacteria.
  • Rock Art Studies

    The archaeological sub-discipline devoted to the investigation of rock art is known as "rock art studies." Rock art specialist David S. Whitley noted that research in this area required an "integrated effort" that brings together archaeological theory, method, fieldwork, analytical techniques and interpretation.


    Although French archaeologists had undertaken much research into rock art, Anglophone archaeology had largely neglected the subject for decades.

    The discipline of rock art studies witnessed what Whitley called a "revolution" during the 1980s and 1990s, as increasing numbers of archaeologists in the Anglophone world and Latin America turned their attention to the subject. In doing so, they recognised that rock art could be used to understand symbolic and religious systems, gender relations, cultural boundaries, cultural change and the origins of art and belief. One of the most significant figures in this movement was the South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, who published his studies of San rock art from southern Africa, in which he combined ethnographic data to reveal the original purpose of the artworks. Lewis-Williams would come to be praised for elevating rock art studies to a "theoretically sophisticated research domain" by Whitley. However, the study of rock art worldwide is marked by considerable differences of opinion with respect to the appropriateness of various methods and the most relevant and defensible theoretical framework.

    International Databases and Archives

    The UNESCO World Rock Art Archive Working Group met in 2011 to discuss the base model for a World Rock Art Archive. While no official output has been generated to date various projects around the world, such as for example The Global Rock Art Database, are looking at making rock art heritage information more accessible and more visible to assist with rock art awareness, conservation and preservation issues.


    Rock art Wikipedia

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