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Petroglyphs

Definition, types, examples of
Stone Age chiselled rock art

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Antelope petroglyphs at Tin Taghirt on the Tassili n’Ajjer
Open air petroglyph of a sleeping antelope, at Tin Taghirt on the Tassili n’Ajjer in southern Algeria. Image by Linus Wolf. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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:

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.

Other Stone Age Terms

Dating Problems

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.

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Interpretation

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:

For more about the chronology of Stone Age rock carvings, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(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.

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