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Rock Art

Painting & Engraving on Rocks
Plus Petroforms and Geoglyphs

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Bison engraving at Aitzbitarte Cave
Engraved drawing of a Bison in the Aitzbitarte cave, Basque Country, Spain. This is the first time this type of engraving method has been discovered south of the Pyrenees. Image by Diego Garate Maidagan/ Gipuzkoako Foru Aldundia. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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.

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.

Handprints on a boulder at Quesang, Tibet, which rank among the oldest rock art in the world.
These Tibetan handprints at Quesang, are among the world's oldest rock art. Image by David D. Zhang et al. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Rock Paintings

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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Thematic Content

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:

Famous Rock Paintings

Famous rock pictures can be found at the following sites (listed chronologically):

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Petroglyphs

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:

Cupules

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.

Rock Engravings

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):

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Relief Sculpture

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:

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

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 Petroforms

Famous examples of this type of prehistoric rock art, listed in chronological order, include:

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Geoglyphs

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).

Famous Geoglyphs

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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Paleolithic Era

Lower Paleolithic
2.5 million - 300,000 BC

Lower Paleolithic rock art:
- Daraki-Chattan Cupules
- Auditorium Cave Cupules

Middle Paleolithic
300,000-40,000 BC

Middle Paleolithic rock art:
- Quesang Handprints
- Blombos Cave Drawing
- La Ferrassie Cave cupules

Upper Paleolithic
40,000-10,000 BC

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

References

(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.

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