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Rock Art: 4 Main Types
In the field of prehistoric art, the term 'rock art' refers to a general category of man-made markings on natural rock faces.
Rock art is commonly divided into four types, listed below. The last two categories are minor.
- Rock Paintings
Including abstract pictographs.
Engravings, relief sculpture.
Arrangements of stones.
Designs created on the ground.
Please Note: The exact dividing line between positive geoglyphs and petroforms is unclear. Also both petroforms and geoglyphs can be classified as land art, while some petroforms may also be examples of megalithic art.
Prehistoric rock painting includes:
The most famous rock paintings belong to the era of Upper Paleolithic art, between about 45,000 BC and 10,000 BC.
During the succeeding Mesolithic and Neolithic periods - the final periods of the Stone Age, dating to between 10,000 and 2,000 BC - rock painting (pictography) moved out of the caves into the open air.
So while Franco-Cantabrian rock art was created in caves, later works in India, Australia, and Africa (bar a few notable exceptions) were created outdoors.
Stone Age rock painters began by painting with their fingers. Later, they favoured moss pads, lumpy pigment crayons, or brushes made out of animal hair or natural fibres.
The most progressive cave painting technique involved spray painting - blowing paint onto the rock wall, using reeds or specially hollowed-out animal bones.
The pigments used in cave art were generally obtained from mineral, sources (ochre), crushed bones (calcium phosphate), or organic material like wood (charcoal).
After crushing the pigments to a fine powder, artists mixed it with animal fats, vegetable juice, water, blood or urine to help it stick to the cave wall.
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There were only three thematic compositions in prehistoric pictography: animals, humans and abstract symbols.
There were no hunting scenes, no scenes of everyday life, no landscape features (rivers, cliffs, trees), no pictures of settlements. The only things depicted in rock paintings were:
- Animal figures - mostly single, adult animals shown in profile. The most commonly painted animals included horses and bison.
- Human figures - typically shamanic figures, or part-human, part-animal images, or stick-like figures.
- Abstract symbols - lines, dots, circles, ovals and triangles, as well as more complex tectiforms, Spanish tectiforms and quadrangles. These abstract pictographs constituted a crude form of graphic communication: a precursor to cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing systems, including those developed in Ancient China, Sumeria, and Egypt, as well as modern-day non-literate cultures in Africa, South and Central America, SE Asia and Oceania.
Famous Rock Paintings
Famous rock pictures can be found at the following sites (listed chronologically):
- Quesang Handprints
World's oldest handprints found on a travertine boulder.
- Sulawesi Cave Paintings
Red ochre paintings of wild pigs.
- East Kalimantan Caves
Lubang Jeriji Saleh
A wild cow in red/orange ochre. Borneo and Sulawesi are without doubt the most important sites of rock painting in SE Asia.
- Chauvet Cave Paintings
Panel of the Rhinoceroses, the Great Panel of the Lions, Venus & Sorcerer.
Magnificent red, black and violet coloured bison on the ceiling in the Chamber of the Frescoes.
- Aboriginal Rock Art
From 30,000 BC
Vast numbers of petroglyphs and pictographs.
- Kimberley Rock Paintings
Open air pictographs
From 30,000 BC
See the Kimberley kangaroo painting, as well as the Gwion Gwion and Wandjina paintings. The Kimberley is probably the leading area of rock painting in Australia.
- Ubirr Rock Paintings
Open air pictographs
From 30,000 BC
Includes aboriginal 'X-ray' paintings of humans.
- Pech-Merle Cave
Panel of the Spotted Horses, Gallery of the Wounded Man.
- Lascaux Cave Paintings
Unicorn (Hall of the Bulls); Great Black Bull, Chinese Horses, Upside-down Horse (Axial Gallery); Shaft of the Dead Man. Lascaux and Chauvet remain the most important examples of rock painting in Europe.
- Niaux Cave
Famous for its black paintings in Salon Noir; Weasel in the Réseau René Clastres; mystery anthropomorphic figure in Cul-de-Four.
- Ekain Cave
Basque Country, Spain
Great Panel of Horses in Zaldei Room: 'the most perfect group of horses in Quaternary art.'
- Bhimbetka Rock Paintings
Madhya Pradesh, India
Animals, hunting & dance pictures. Bhimbetka is the most important site of Mesolithic art in India.
- Pachmari Hills Paintings
Animals & human images.
- Cave of Bees
Animal rock paintings.
- Tassili n'Ajjer
Has one of the finest groupings of prehistoric art in the world, including some 15,000 rock paintings & engravings of animals & humans.
- Cueva de las Manos
Hand stencils & handprints. Along with Fell's Cave in Patagonia, and Blackwater Draw in eastern New Mexico, Cueva de las Manos is one of the most important sites of rock art in the Americas.
- Elands Bay Cave
Western Cape, South Africa
Collages of hand stencils.
- Brandberg Rock Paintings
Brandberg Massif, Namibia
White Lady and other engraved figures from the San culture.
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Petroglyphs are images created by 'scratching' the rock surface, removing part of the surface layer. 'Scratching' includes: carving, engraving, incising, abrading or hammering.
Like pictographs, petroglyphs are found in caves and at outdoor sites, although they are less vulnerable to the effects of weather, and thus more likely to survive in the open.
Consequently, while few if any outdoor rock paintings have survived from paleolithic times, there are several major outdoor sites of paleolithic engravings.
Petroglyphs have been found all over the world, notably in parts of Scandinavia, Siberia, Africa, southwestern North America, Northern and Western Australia, and the Iberian Peninsula.
There are three types of petroglyph:
- Rock engravings
- Relief sculpture
The oldest and most mysterious type of paleolithic art are cupules - non-functional cup-shaped hollows created by percussive hammer blows on a rock surface.
Cupules have been discovered on every continent except Antarctica, and were produced from at least 1 million BC, if not before.
Scientists have no idea what these markings mean or why they were created in such numbers.
To add to the mystery, an average sized cupule required several thousand blows with a heavy hammerstone - an incredible expenditure of energy, considering that cupules are often found in large clusters.
Famous cupules are in the Auditorium Cave Bhimbetka (200,000 BC) and the Daraki-Chattan Rock Shelter, Bhanpura (200,000 BC) in India.
In Europe, see the cupule signs at La Ferrassie Cave (60,000 BC) in the Dordogne.
Although engravings on marine shells, animal bone and ostrich eggshells date back to 540,000 BC, parietal rock engravings first took off during the Aurignacian phase of the Upper Paleolithic (40-30,000 BC), before being mastered during the Magdalenian period.
The themes followed by rock carvers mirror those of the rock painters: namely, animals, anthropomorphic figures and abstract symbols.
Famous Rock Engravings
Famous rock carvings can be found at the following sites (listed chronologically):
- Gorham's Cave
Famous for its Neanderthal crosshatch engraving on a dolomite stone surface.
- Tito Bustillo Cave
Superb engraved and painted drawings in the Gallery of Horses.
- Burrup Peninsula Rock Art
From 30,000 BC
Famous for its estimated 1 million petroglyphs depicting a wide variety of subjects, including extinct animals like the Tasmanian tiger, as well as human figures in ceremonial and everyday garb. Probably the most important site of prehistoric petroglyphs in Australia.
- Côa Valley Rock Art
Côa river valley, Portugal
Over 5,000 animal rock carvings, including drawings of aurochs, bison, deer, horses and ibex.
- Roucadour Cave
Famous for 150 engravings of horses, bison, aurochs, woolly mammoths, megaceros, and birds.
- Lascaux Cave
Famous for hundreds of animal engravings including the Major Black Stag, the engraved horses in the Panel of the Black Cow, and the strange human figure inside an outfit of dried grass, accompanied by a bird.
- Siega Verde Rock Art
Over 400 images, including 244 animal engravings, 165 abstract motifs, and 3 anthropomorphs.
- Trois Frères Cave
Large engraved drawing of a feline in the Chapel of the Lioness. Also, the sorcerer figure in the Sanctuary wearing the antlers of a stag and the tail of a horse.
- Gabillou Cave
Engraving of a sorcerer figure, half-human, half-animal creature, with horns, and the tail of a bison.
- Les Combarelles Cave
Famous for its 600 engravings of Stone Age animals.
- Addaura Caves
Engraving of a human sacrifice dance scene.
- Wonderwerk Cave
Stones engraved with geometric motifs and animal figures.
Engravings of cattle, antelopes, buffalo, crocodiles, and humans. Tassili-n-Ajjer is one of the leading exemplars of rock art in Africa.
- Sydney Rock Engravings
Simple figurative drawings of people and animals carved into sandstone.
- Dabous Giraffe Engravings
An exceptional site of Neolithic art in Africa. Two giant giraffes, along with carvings of elephants, antelopes, crocodiles and cattle, from the Tuareg Culture.
- Gavrinis Passage Tomb
Spiral decorations on slabs.
- Newgrange Passage Tomb
Co Meath, Ireland
- Niola Doa Engravings
'Beautiful Ladies' and other rock carvings.
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Relief sculpture - including bas-relief and haut-relief carvings - is comparatively rare and limited to a small number of sites. The most famous examples of this type of prehistoric sculpture, were discovered at the following sites:
- Abri de Laussel
Famous for its relief sculpture - the Venus of Laussel.
- Abri du Poisson
Famous for its 1-metre long bas-relief carving of a salmon.
Famous for its 20-metre frieze featuring high-reliefs of bison, horses, ibexes and felines, as well as several venuses.
- Roc-de-Sers Cave
Famous for its fifty rock engravings and low-reliefs of animals.
- Tuc d'Audoubert Cave
Renowned for its high-relief sculpture of two bison about to mate.
- Cap Blanc
Beune Valley, Dordogne
Famous for its 13-metre long frieze of relief sculpture features horses, bison and reindeer.
- Göbekli Tepe
Şanlıurfa, SE Turkey
World's first religious structure, noted for its relief sculptures of boars, spiders, snakes and vultures.
- Nevalı Çori
Şanlıurfa, SE Turkey
Early Neolithic temple, noted for its relief carvings of animals.
Note: Freestanding statuettes and carvings are not considered rock art, since they are mobiliary (portable) art, and not fixed to a rock surface.
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Petroforms are large scale man-made arrangements of rocks on open ground, quite unlike the small-scale rock art carved onto rock surfaces.
Typically, this type of rock art involves the positioning of boulders and stones in geometrical patterns over large expanses of land.
Some of these arrangements were designed as astronomical calendars, with components aligned with solstice and equinox sunrises and sunsets, and so are often found on elevated ground.
The meaning and purpose of most petroforms is not known, although it is clear that many possess significant cultural or spiritual importance in the eyes of the communities that created them.
Where petroforms involved very large stones, or megaliths, they also qualify as megalithic art - a form of cultural architecture that was popular during the final phase of the Neolithic period, as well as the Bronze Age.
Famous examples of this type of prehistoric rock art, listed in chronological order, include:
- Cromlech of Almendres
This is the largest arrangement of menhirs on the Iberian Peninsula and one of the largest in the whole of Europe. Positioned in a circular pattern, the complex contains around 95 granite monoliths, arranged in small groups. About ten percent are decorated with some form of engraved drawings. The complex was designed as a primitive astronomical observatory or else had a religious or cultural purpose.
- Carnac Stones
Petroforms galore in this dense arrangement of stone alignments, dolmens and tumuli. Includes more than 3,000 prehistoric standing stones (menhirs) of weathered granite. Carnac is one of the world's largest sites of megalithic rock art.
- Stonehenge Stone Circle
Salisbury Plain, England
Situated in the middle of a dense concentration of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, Stonehenge features an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones (25 tons each), topped by connecting horizontal lintels. Inside is a ring of smaller bluestones, inside which are (were) five free-standing trilithons. Sadly this wonderful megalithic structure has fallen into a ruined state. Originally, it was aligned towards the sunrise on the summer solstice. It served as a burial site, as well as a ceremonial centre, and possibly a destination for pilgrims.
- Ring of Brodgar
Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, the Ring of Brodgar consists of a Neolithic henge and stone circle. Within the vicinity there are the two other circle-henges, four extended tombs, groups of standing stones, monoliths, barrows, cairns, and burial mounds.
Known as the 'Armenian Stonehenge', this Neolithic archaeological monument consists of 223 basalt stones (weighing up to 10 tons each) and features burial cists and menhirs. Archaeoastronomers believe that the menhirs could have been used for astronomical observation.
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A geoglyph is a large design created on the ground either by arranging stones, stone fragments or earth to create a positive geoglyph, or by removing patinated rock to expose unpatinated ground (negative geoglyph).
- 'Works of the Old Men'
Best viewed from the air, 'Works of the Old Men' is the name given by Bedouin to a series of desert kites (in Arabic 'desert traps') found in Syria, Jordan and Arabia. These kites are long dry-stone walls complexes which were used as traps for game animals such as antelope, which were driven into the kites and killed. Each kite is no more than one metre in height but can run to hundreds of metres in length.
- Uffington White Horse
This Neolithic hill figure, some 110 metres in length, is marked out with deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk. It was created some time between 1,380 and 500 BC, during the late Bronze Age/ early Iron Age.
- Sajama Lines
These mysterious lines are made up of a network of thousands of nearly perfectly straight tracks or paths, which have been etched into the earth continuously for the last 3,000 years by people living near the volcano Sajama. They were created by removing the covering of plants and dark rocks to reveal the lighter soil and rocks underneath, and extend for a total of 22,000 square kilometres. The Sajama Lines are believed to be the largest artwork on earth, yet what their purpose is, or how they were made with such geometric precision, remains a mystery.
- Nazca Lines
From 500 BC
These lines were created by digging up the reddish-brown soil of the Nazca Desert (to a depth of 10 to 15 cm), leaving yellow-grey subsoil exposed. Most lines are straight, but some form designs of animals and plants. These designs typically measure between 400 and 1,100 metres in width.
Modern geoglyphs include the Marree Man of central South Australia, and the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, England.
History of Rock Art
Rock art was produced in all three periods of the Stone Age: Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic. Each of these periods are listed below, together with highlights of their rock paintings, engravings and other rock art.
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2.5 million - 300,000 BC
Lower Paleolithic rock art:
- Daraki-Chattan Cupules
- Auditorium Cave Cupules
Middle Paleolithic rock art:
- Quesang Handprints
- Blombos Cave Drawing
- La Ferrassie Cave cupules
Upper Paleolithic art represents the apogee of Stone Age painting and engraving. Important sites from this period, include:
- Sulawesi rock paintings
- Chauvet Cave drawings
- Burrup Peninsula art
- Côa Valley petroglyphs
- Lascaux Cave art
- Altamira Polychrome art
- Trois Frères engravings
Mesolithic: 10,000-8,000 BC
Mesolithic rock art includes:
- Bhimbetka rock paintings
- Pachmari Hills paintings
- Wonderwerk Cave engravings
Neolithic: 8,000-3,000 BC
Neolithic rock art includes:
- Tassili n'Ajjer carvings
- Sydney Rock engravings
- Dabous Giraffe engravings
- Carnac Stones petroforms
- Stonehenge megalithic art
- Sajama Lines geoglyphs
(1) Bahn, Paul (ed), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, 1998, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521454735
(2) Robert G. Bednarik. "The Oldest Known Rock art in the World." Anthropologie - Vol. 39, No. 2/3 (2001), pp. 89-98.
(3) David, Bruno, Cave Art, 2017, Thames and Hudson, ISBN 9780500204351
(4) Giriraj Kumar, Robert G. Bednarik. "Scientific study of the cupules in Daraki-Chattan Cave, India." Rock Art Research 2019 - Volume 36, Number 2, pp. 148-156.
(5) O'Sullivan, Rebecca (2018). "East Asia: Rock Art". Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (2 ed.). Springer. pp. 1–11.
(6) Whitley, David S. (2005). Introduction to Rock Art Research. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press. ISBN 978-1598740004.