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Rock Engravings: Prehistoric

Engraved drawings & carvings
Of the Upper Paleolithic

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Engraved drawing of a Lion  at Les Combarelles Cave
Sublime engraving of a lion at Les Combarelles Cave. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

What are Prehistoric Engravings?

In prehistoric rock art, the term "engraving" commonly describes a drawing made by a sharpened tool, or lithic flake on a stone surface, such as the wall, floor or ceiling of a cave.

The most famous petroglyphs can be seen at Trois Frères Cave (The Sorcerer), Les Combarelles (Drinking Reindeer), Gabillou (Chamber of the Hare), and Cussac Cave (The Great Panel).

Other prehistoric caves containing famous engravings include: Tito Bustillo Cave and Font-de-Gaume (polychrome engravings), Roucadour Cave (engraved horses and the unique horse-bird), and the Addaura Caves (human sacrifice dance scene).

Owl engraving Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, Ardèche. Oldest owl rock carving in the world
The world's oldest engraving of an owl, Chauvet Cave. Roughly 45cm in height, it was created about 31,000 BC. Image by HTO. (Public Domain)

Most Prehistoric Engravings are Outdoors

Despite the fact that Stone Age engravings (like paintings) are commonly seen as a type of cave art, most engravings are found outdoors.

Aboriginal rock art in Australia, for instance, consists largely of outdoor petroglyphs like engravings.

Even in Europe, open air engravings are more numerous than those in deep caves. The two largest sites are in the Coa Valley in Portugal, and at Siega Verde in Spain.

Unfortunately, current dating technology has huge difficulty in dating outdoor rock markings, due to the effects of weather.

In contrast, cave engravings can be indirectly dated in two ways: either, by dating the calcite flowstone overlying the wall surface, or by dating undisturbed deposits into which engraved fragments of ceiling or wall have fallen. The latter approach is illustrated by dating successes at Abri Castanet and Abri Cellier, in the Vézère Valley of the Dordogne.

Dabous Giraffes rock engravings, Niger
Dabous Giraffes engravings, Agadez, Niger. Image by Albert Backer. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

New Method of Dating Rock Carvings

According to a recent article in POS Online, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, have recently devised a brand new method of dating rock engravings.

The method works by comparing the quantity of manganese and iron on the intact rock surface (the so-called rock 'crust' or 'varnish'), with that on the pecked surface of the engraving.

Measurements are obtained directly at the site, using a portable X-ray fluorescence device. The rock varnish is not damaged in any way by the process.

For a list of Stone Age sites containing engravings and other petroglyphs, see: Paleolithic Caves around the world.

Types of Prehistoric Engraving

During the engraving process, Stone Age artists removed the dark, weathered outer layer (patina) of the rock surface to reveal the paler rock beneath. Three techniques were employed to do this.

Figurative Engravings

Incised drawings of animals and human figures were typically created using a burin (sharp stone tool) or perhaps an even thinner lithic blade. These fine-edged tools permitted smaller, fine-grained details to be etched onto rock surfaces.

Finger-Drawn Engravings

In some prehistoric caves, where the walls were made of soft limestone or clay, Stone Age artists used their fingers to engrave drawings in the soft surface. Examples of this type, include the La Roche-Cotard Cave engravings and those at Baume Latrone Cave, among others.

Less Precise Markings

Larger, or deeper, or less precise rock engravings, were generally hammered and chiselled out of the rock. These markings included cupules, simple motifs (e.g. vulvae), and abstract symbols (e.g. spirals or similar patterns).

For the chronology of rock engravings, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

What's the Difference in Appearance Between Engraving and Relief Sculpture?

Answer: There's a clear difference between a regular engraved drawing and a low relief sculpture. An engraved drawing is level with the rock surface except for the outline of the drawing, whereas a low-relief sculpture rises above the rock, because the artist has cut away the surface plane.

However, there is less difference between a deep engraved drawing and a sunk-relief or bas-relief sculpture. Although there are differences in principle, the practical differences are less obvious. This is illustrated by the relief carving at the Abri du Poisson rock shelter in the Dordogne.

Upper Paleolithic Engravings

Like most types of cave art, engraved drawings became a common feature of deep caves during the Upper Paleolithic era (40,000-10,000 BC).

Figurative engravings (painted and unpainted) were a popular form of Franco-Cantabrian art in southern France and along the coast of northern Spain. Although less appealing than cave paintings, they are more numerous.

Typically drawn with a flint or fine-edged stone, the type of engraved marking varied significantly.

Generally, the Stone Age engraver was happy to sketch the outlines of an animal using a simple outline. This could be deep and wide or shallow and narrow, depending on the softness of the rock surface, or the intentions of the artist.

Many engraved drawings incised during the Aurignacian period, are now barely visible, but modern technology shows they were much more visible when they were first created, since their white lines contrasted strongly with the darker patina of the cave wall.

Over time however, the lines have faded, which may explain the numerous superimpositions of drawings in later Magdalenian sites, such as Les Combarelles or Lascaux.

As far as themes are concerned, most prehistoric engravings depict animal figures, but two exceptions are worth noting: the extraordinary engraved human figures discovered in the Addaura caves, outside Palermo in Sicily; and the engraved drawing of the half-man half animal known as the Sorcerer, in the Trois Frères cave, in the French Pyrenees.

Rock Art and Shamanic Rituals

Prehistoric art, like paintings and engravings, played an important role in ritual ceremonies among hunter-gatherer communities. That's according to the world heritage site of Twyfelfontein in Damaraland, a region of north-central Namibia.

The world heritage site occupies an area of less than 1 square kilometre, but includes some exceptional galleries of rock engravings depicting a wide range of wild animals – giraffe, rhino, elephant, zebra, oryx, ostrich, flamingo, and many more.

The rock carvings, many of which are superimposed, are incised onto the massive rock faces of free-standing boulders and represent an important aspect of San hunter gatherer ritual and culture.

For peoples like the San, prehistoric painting and engraving became a means of expressing complex beliefs about the supernatural world.

Paleolithic cave art was the preserve of shamans or medicine people, and had two functions: it facilitated passage to the supernatural world, and it allowed shamans to record their experiences in that world. See: Shamans in Paleolithic Art.

In order to pass over into the spirit world, the shaman entered into a state of trance or altered consciousness.

Pecking away at the rock in order to create engravings, helped to prepare the shaman to enter such a trance. Other preparation included a combination of dancing to rhythmic clapping, or chanting, or hyperventilation, dehydration, oxygen deprivation, intense meditation or hallucinogenic substances.

Entering into a trance, the shaman experienced various physical sensations. He could shiver and struggle to remain in control of his movements, or he could simply collapse on the ground.

This second stage of the shamanic trance - known as the ‘little death’ - occurred as the shaman entered the supernatural realm of the spirits. When he awoke he would assume the form of a supernatural creature. This could be a familiar animal, like a giraffe, elephant or lion.

The shaman would carry out certain tasks while in the spirit world, such as making rain, healing the sick, and communicating with the supernatural spirit forces.

Famous Rock Engravings

France

Here is an A-Z list of the most important sites of rock engravings in France.

Spain

Here is an A-Z list of the most famous rock engraving sites in Spain.

Rest of the World

References & Resources

(1) "Introduction to Rock Art Research." Whitley, David S. (2005). Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press. ISBN 978-1598740004.
(2) "Archeometric studies on rock art at four sites in the northeastern Great Basin of North America." Meinrat O. Andreae, Tracey Andreae. POS Online, 1/2022.
(3) "Cave Art". Bruno David, 2017, Thames and Hudson, ISBN 9780500204351.
(4) "Patterns in the age and context of rock art in the Northern Cape." Beaumont, P.B. & Vogel, J.C. 1989. South African Archaeological Bulletin 44, 73-81.
(5) "The Sans of Time". Robert Inglis, Nonhlanhla Vilakazi. Sunday Times, 17 October 2010.

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