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What is a Petroglyph?
In paleolithic art, the word "petroglyph" (from the French word "pétroglyphe", itself derived from the Greek words "petra" meaning stone, and "glyphein" meaning to carve) refers to any image chiselled into a natural rock surface.
A form of rock art, petroglyphs can be incised, hammered, scoured, scratched, chiselled, engraved, carved, or gouged out of the rock.
Main Types of Petroglyph
The three most common types of petroglyph are:
Hemispherical cup-like hollows, like those at Daraki-Chattan rock shelter in India.
- Rock Engravings
Drawings with a burin or other sharp tool, like those at Les Combarelles Cave or Les Trois Frères Cave in France.
- Prehistoric Sculpture
That is, relief sculpture, not freestanding. There's little difference in principle, or appearance between low reliefs - like the Venus of Laussel - and deep engravings. But petroglyphs do not include freestanding sculpture.
Do Petroglyphs Include Paintings?
No. Rock paintings are not classified as petroglyphs: instead, they are defined as pictographs. However, some engraved drawings are also painted, like those at Font de Gaume in the Dordogne.
Are Petroglyphs Classified as Cave Art?
Yes. There are many famous examples of cupules, engravings and reliefs in cave art, but they are also found on rock surfaces outside caves. See, for example, the Burrup Peninsula petroglyphs in Australia.
Where are Petroglyphs Located?
Petroglyphs are the most common form of prehistoric art, probably because they last longer than paintings.
They are found in every continent except Antarctica, with the greatest concentration in Australia, Saharan Africa, South Africa, Scandinavia, and India.
In Western Europe, the highest density is in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art on either side of the Pyrenees and on the Iberian Peninsula.
What is the Difference Between Petroglyphs and Rock Art?
A petroglyph involves chiselled or incised stonework, but rock art is a broader term which also includes paintings as well as two other minor categories of megalithic land art.
- Rock Paintings
Figurative imagery and abstract pictographs such as those at Altamira Cave in northern Spain.
Cupules, engravings, relief sculpture.
Petroforms are shapes and patterns created by arranging large rocks (megaliths) and boulders on open ground. The most famous example is Stonehenge, in England.
A geoglyph is a large design (usually more than 4 metres in length) produced on the ground by durable elements of the landscape, like rocks and stones. A famous example is the Sajama Lines in western Bolivia.
Other Stone Age Terms
Unlike cave paintings whose organic pigments can be dated - cave petroglyphs leave no organic traces or residue.
Only where a fragment of wall or ceiling (decorated with petroglyphs) collapses into a dateable archaeolgical layer of deposits (or when flowstone forms a film over an engraving), can a minimum date be obtained.
Open air cupules, carvings and reliefs are even more difficult to date, since there is usually little in the immediate vicinity - in the way of undisturbed artifacts, stone tools or animal bones - that can be used to date them.
Which are the Oldest Petroglyths?
The oldest Stone Age petroglyphs are the Bhimbetka cupules in the Auditorium cave, India, which are dated to the Acheulean culture between 700,000 and 200,000 BC.
Cupules are by far the oldest and simplest type of petroglyph. And because an enormous amount of physical effort was needed to produce a relatively shallow cupule, they obviously played an important role in Stone Age culture.
However, cupule experts, like Robert G. Bednarik, believe it is futile to guess the meaning of these ancient markings, not least because we have no idea of their cultural context.
No paleoanthropologist has yet provided a coherent explanation for their creation.
Engravings can be said to provide more clues, although here too, there is little consensus on why certain animals were depicted (like bison and horses) but not others (like birds or fish); or why so few humans were depicted.
Were petroglyphs created for symbolic or artistic reasons? Nobody knows.
A recent study was conducted by the University of Witwatersrand into the rock engravings of the San Bushmen of the Kalahari desert.
The study found numerous links between San art and San culture, a culture which includes shamanic healing and rain-making.
This suggests that in order to understand the meaning and function of petroglyphs, it is important - if not essential - to understand the culture from which they emerge.
See: Meaning of Cave Art.
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List of Famous Petroglyphs
Here is a selected chronological list of the most famous examples of Stone Age petroglyphs:
- Auditorium Cave Cupules
India, up to 500,000 years ago.
11 Acheulean cupules, mostly on Chief's Rock.
- Daraki-Chattan Cupules
India, up to 500,000 years ago.
Two high walls covered in cupules.
- La Ferrassie Cave
France, 60,000 BC
An arrangement of Mousterian-era cupules on the underside of a gravestone covering the grave of a Neanderthal child.
- Gorham's Cave Engraving
Gibraltar, 37,000 BC
Aurignacian abstract engraving (crosshatch) carved onto a limestone surface.
- Abri Blanchard Engraving
France, 36,000 BC
Aurochs engraving with cupules.
- Abri Castanet Engravings
France, 35,000 BC
Engravings, abstract symbols.
- Tito Bustillo Cave Engravings
Spain, 34,000 BC
Engraved drawings in the Gallery of Horses.
- Burrup Peninsula Rock Art
Australia, 30,000 BC
World famous for its open air Aboriginal rock art comprising an estimated 1 million petroglyphs.
- Ubirr Rock Art
NT, Australia, 30,000 BC
Aboriginal open air rock engravings.
- Kimberley Rock Art
W. Australia, 30,000 BC
Aboriginal open air cupules and engravings.
- Côa Valley Rock Art
Portugal, 28,000 BC
Some 5,000 animal rock carvings of bison, deer, horses, aurochs and ibex.
- Roucadour Cave Engravings
French Lot, 27,000 BC
Contains 150 engravings of bison, horses, aurochs, mammoths, megaceros, and birds.
- Cussac Cave Engravings
Dordogne, 26,500 BC
Large scale animal engravings on the "Great Panel" (Le Grand Panneau), the "Panel of the Bisons" (Panneau des Bisons) and the "Panel of the Discovery" (Panneau de la Découverte).
- Abri de Laussel
Dordogne, 23,000 BC
Home of the Venus of Laussel, a famous Gravettian relief sculpture.
- Abri du Poisson Relief
Dordogne, 23,000 BC
Contains a 1-metre long bas-relief carving of a salmon.
- Lascaux Cave
Dordogne, 19,000 BC
Has hundreds of engraved drawings of animals including the Major Black Stag, the engraved horses in the Panel of the Black Cow, and the bizarre human figure wearing an outfit of dried grass.
- Siega Verde Rock Art
Spain, 18,000 BC
Home to at least 400 engravings, including 244 animals, 165 abstract signs, and 3 human-like figures.
- Roc-de-Sers Cave Reliefs
French Charente, 17,200 BC
Famous for its Solutrean rock engravings and low-reliefs of animals.
- Font-de-Gaume Cave
Dordogne, 14,000 BC
Multi-coloured painted engravings.
- Isturitz, Oxocelhaya & Erberua Caves
Engraved pillar and wall carvings.
- Trois Frères Engravings
French Ariège, 13,000 BC
Engraving of 'The Sorcerer', wearing the antlers of a stag and the tail of a horse.
- Gabillou Cave Engravings
Dordogne, 13,000 BC
Engraving of a Hare, plus an engraved drawing of a half-human, half-animal sorcerer figure, with horns, and the tail of a bison.
- Roc-aux-Sorciers Frieze
French Vienne, 12,000 BC
Sublime Magdalenian frieze of animal relief sculptures.
- Les Combarelles Engravings
Dordogne, 11,700 BC
The Drinking Reindeer is a major highlight.
- Addaura Caves
Sicily, 10,000 BC
Contains a unique carving of a human sacrifice dance scene.
- Göbekli Tepe
Urfa, Turkey, 9,500 BC
World's oldest megalithic art - bas-relief carvings of animals and abstract symbols.
- Wonderwerk Cave
South Africa, 8,200 BC
Stones engraved with geometric motifs and animal figures.
Southeast Algeria, 8,000 BC
Engravings of cattle, buffalo, antelopes, crocodiles, and humans.
- Dabous Giraffe Engravings
Niger, 4,000 BC
Carved drawings of elephants, antelopes, crocodiles and cattle, from the Taureg Culture.
- Niola Doa Engravings
Northeast Chad, 3,000 BC
'Beautiful Ladies' and other engraved drawings.
- Newgrange Passage Tomb
Ireland, 3,300 BC
For more about the chronology of Stone Age rock carvings, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).
(1) Robert G. Bednarik. "The Oldest Known Rock art in the World." Anthropologie - Vol. 39, No. 2/3 (2001), p.89.
(2) Bahn, Paul (ed), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, 1998, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521454735
(3) David, Bruno, Cave Art, 2017, Thames and Hudson, ISBN 9780500204351.