Rock art

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Petroglyph attributed to Classic Vernal Style, Fremont archaeological culture, eastern Utah, USA.

In archaeology, rock art is human-made markings placed on natural stone; it is also largely synonymous with parietal art. A global phenomenon, rock art is found in many different regions of the world, having been produced in many different contexts throughout human history, although the majority of rock art that has been ethnographically recorded has been produced as a part of ritual. Such artworks are often divided into three forms: petroglyphs which are carved into the rock surface, pictographs which are painted onto the surface, and earth figures engraved into the ground.

The oldest known rock art dates from the Upper Palaeolithic period, having been found in Europe, Australasia and Africa. Archaeologists studying these artworks believe that they likely had magico-religious significance.

The archaeological sub-discipline of rock art studies first developed in the late-19th century among Francophone scholars studying the Upper Palaeolithic rock art found in the cave systems of Western Europe. Rock art also continues to be of importance to indigenous peoples in various parts of the world, who view them as both sacred items and significant components of their cultural patrimony.[1] Such archaeological sites are also significant sources of cultural tourism, and have been utilised in popular culture for their aesthetic qualities.[2]


Buddhist stone carvings at Ili River, Kazakhstan.

The term rock art appears in the published literature as early as the 1940s.[3][4] It has also been described as "rock carvings",[5] "rock drawings",[6] "rock engravings",[7] "rock inscriptions",[8] "rock paintings",[9] "rock pictures",[10] "rock records"[11] "rock sculptures.,[12][13]


The defining characteristic of rock art is the fact that it is placed on natural rock surfaces; in this way it is distinct from artworks placed on constructed walls or free-standing sculpture.[14] As such, rock art is a form of landscape art, and includes designs that have been placed on boulder and cliff faces, cave walls and ceilings, and on the ground surface.[14] Rock art is a global phenomenon, being found in many different regions of the world.[1]

There are various different forms of rock art. This includes pictographs, which were painted or drawn onto the panel (rock surface), petroglyphs, which were carved or engraved onto the panel, and earth figures such as earthforms, intaglios and geoglyphs. Some archaeologists also consider pits and grooves in the rock, known as cups, rings or cupules, as a form of rock art.[14]

Although there are some exceptions, the majority of rock art whose creation was ethnographically recorded had been produced during rituals.[14] As such, the study of rock art is a component of the archaeology of religion.[15]

Rock art serves multiple purposes in the contemporary world. In several regions, it remains spiritually important to indigenous peoples, who view it as a significant component of their cultural patrimony.[1] It also serves as an important source of cultural tourism, and hence economic revenue, in certain parts of the world. As such, images taken from cave art have appeared on memorabilia and other artefacts sold as a part of the tourist industry.[2]

"The Great Fishing God of Sefar", one of the oldest paintings on earth, Tamenrasset, Algeria[16]
Petroglyphs in Val Camonica, Italy.



Pictographs are paintings or drawings that have been placed onto the rock face. Such artworks have typically been made with mineral earths and other natural compounds, which are found across much of the world, with the predominantly used colours are red, black and white. Red paint is usually attained through the use of ground ochre, while black paint is typically composed of charcoal,or sometimes from minerals like manganese instead. White paint is usually created from natural chalk, kaolinite clay or diatomaceous earth.[17] Once the pigments had been obtained, they would have to be ground and mixed with a liquid, such as water, blood, urine, or egg yolk, and then applied to the stone as paint using a brush, fingers, or a stamp. Alternately, the pigment could have been applied on dry, such as with a stick of charcoal.[18] In some societies, the paint itself has symbolic and religious meaning; for instance, among hunter-gatherer groups in California, paint was only allowed to be traded by the group shamans, while in other parts of North America, the word for “paint” was the same as the word for "supernatural spirit".[19]

One unusual form of pictograph, found in many, although not all rock-art producing cultures, is the hand print. There are three forms of this; the first involves covering the hand in wet paint and them applying it to the rock. The second involves a design being painted onto the hand, which is then in turn added to the surface. The third involves the hand first being placed against the panel, with dry paint then being blown onto it through a tube, in a process that is akin to air-brush or spray-painting. The resulting image is a negative print of the hand, and is sometimes described as a "stencil" in Australian archaeology.[20]


Petroglyphs are engravings or carvings into the rock panel. They are created with the use of a hard hammerstone which is battered against the stone surface; in certain societies, the choice of hammerstone itself has religious significance.[21] In other instances, the rock art is pecked out through indirect percussion, as a second rock is used like a chisel between the hammerstone and the panel.[21] A third, rarer form of engraving rock art was through incision, or scratching, into the surface of the stone with a lithic flake or metal blade. The motifs produced using this technique are fine-lined and often difficult to see.[22]

Earth Figures[edit]

Earth figures are large designs and motifs that are created on the stone ground surface. They can be classified through their method of manufacture.[23] Intaglios are created by scraping away the desert pavements (pebbles covering the ground) to reveal a negative image on the bedrock below. The best known example of such intaglio rock art is the Nazca Lines of Peru.[23] In contrast, geoglyphs are positive images,being created by piling up rocks on the ground surface to create a visible motif or design.[23]

Motifs and panels[edit]

Traditionally, individual markings are called motifs and groups of motifs are known as panels. Sequences of panels are treated as archaeological sites. This method of classifying rock art however has become less popular as the structure imposed is unlikely to have had any relevance to the art's creators. Even the word 'art' carries with it many modern prejudices about the purpose of the features.[citation needed]

Rock art can be found across a wide geographical and temporal spread of cultures perhaps to mark territory, to record historical events or stories or to help enact rituals. Some art seems to depict real events whilst many other examples are apparently entirely abstract.[citation needed]

Prehistoric rock depictions were not purely descriptive, with each motif and design having a "deep significance" that is not always understandable to modern scholars.[24]

Ritual uses[edit]

In many instances, the creation of rock art was itself a ritual act.[22]

Relation to shamanism[edit]

Pictograph, southeastern Utah (USA), attributed to Basketmaker, Ancient Puebloan culture.

Some rock art has been interpreted to represent presumed cultural behaviors. Common features in rock art that are related to portraying shamans were bones and other skeletal remains on their coats. One reason for the bones would be that they were used as a type of armor for protecting the shaman on his journeys through different worlds. Devlet, the author of "Rock Art and the Material Culture of Siberian and Central Asian Shamanism" highlights, “Another interpretation of these skeletal costume elements explains them as representations of a shaman brought back to life after the dismemberment that occurs during the initiation process: the depicted bones thus refer to the wearer’s own skeleton” (43). The concept of death and revival is often associated with shamans and the way they are portrayed. The bones were usually on the back of the shaman’s jacket or used on the breast-piece.

Another important aspect used to distinguish shamans in rock art depictions is that they are wearing fringed fabric. There are differences in the lengths of the fringe and where on the shaman the fringe is located. In the rock art, the fringe was usually long single strands attached to different parts of the shaman’s body. The symbolism of the fringe can be interpreted in several ways. One example is, “The fringe on a shaman’s coat is an important element, which marks his or her ornithomorphic nature (i.e. the ability to transform into a bird or to gain its abilities such as the capacity for flight) ” (Devlet 44). The concept of fringe being correlated with flying was mainly used in rock art in the Altai, Tuva, and Mongolian regions.

A more mainstream characteristic is the detection of the shaman’s ritualistic drum. Even though there are different types, shapes, and images painted on the shaman’s drum, it is clearly depicted in the rock art. The range of decoration used on the drums varied from simplistic to innately elaborate. The resemblance is remarkably illustrated, “In the Altai region, images depicted on historical shamanic drums demonstrate a striking similarity with what is shown on the rock engravings” (Devlet 47).

Regional variations[edit]


In the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe, rock art was produced inside cave systems by the hunter-gatherer peoples who inhabited the continent. The oldest known example is the Chauvet Cave in France, although others have been located, including Lascaux in France, Alta Mira in Spain and Creswell Crags in Britain.

The late prehistoric rock art of Europe has been divided into three regions by archaeologists. In Atlantic Europe, the coastal seaboard on the west of the continent, which stretches from Iberia up through France and encompasses the British Isles, a variety of different rock arts were produced from the Neolithic through to the Late Bronze Age. A second area of the continent to contain a significant rock art tradition was that of Alpine Europe, with the majority of artworks being clustered in the southern slopes of the mountainous region, in what is now south-eastern France and northern Italy.


Female figure at the Tassili n'Ajjer mountain range.

Sites in Africa featuring rock art include:

Long-horned cattle and other rock art in the Laas Gaal complex.
  • Laas Gaal in Somalia - A number of cave paintings and petroglyphs can be found at various sites across the country. Among the most prominent examples of this is the rock art in Laas Gaal, situated on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Hargeisa.
  • The Brandberg Mountain (Daureb) Namibia is one of the most important rock art localities on the African continent. Most visitors only see the "The White Lady" shelter (which is neither white, nor a lady, the famous scene probably depicts a young boy in an initiation ceremony), however the upper reaches of the mountain is full of sites with prehistoric paintings, some of which rank among the finest artistic achievements of prehistory.
  • In southern Africa: paintings are found in all parts of Southern Africa that have rock overhangs with smooth surfaces - such as the cave sandstone of Natal, Orange Free State and North-Eastern Cape, the granite and Waterberg sandstone of the Northern Transvaal, the Table Mountain sandstone of the Southern and Western Cape.[25]
    Rock paintings from the Western Cape
  • Mwela and Adjacent Areas Rock Art Site, Zambia
  • Nyero Rockpaintings, Uganda

The Americas[edit]

The oldest reliably dated rock art in the Americas is known as the "Horny Little Man." It is petroglyph depicting a stick figure with an oversized phallus and carved in Lapa do Santo, a cave in central-eastern Brazil.[26]

Nanabozho pictograph, Mazinaw Rock, Bon Echo Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada.
Native American rock painting close to Douglas, Wyoming, USA. One possible interpretation of this painting is: On the left side a group of United States Army soldiers with different insignia and on the right side Native Americans are shown

Rock paintings or pictographs are located in many areas across Canada. There are over 400 sites attributed to the Ojibway from northern Saskatchewan to the Ottawa River.[27]


Bhimbetka rock painting of India, World Heritage Site.


The earliest evidence of painting derives from archaeological sites in two rock-shelters in Arnhem Land, in northern Australia. In the lowest layer of material at these sites there are used pieces of ochre estimated to be 60,000 years old. Archaeologists have also found a fragment of rock painting preserved in a limestone rock-shelter in the Kimberley region of North-Western Australia dated at 40 000 years old.[35] In 2008, rock art depicting what is thought to be a Thylacoleo was discovered on the north-western coast of the Kimberley.[36] Thylacoleo is believed to have gone extinct by 46,000 years ago. Pigments from the "Bradshaw paintings" of the Kimberley are so old they have become part of the rock itself, making carbon dating impossible. Some experts suggest that these paintings are in the vicinity of 50,000 years old and may even pre-date aboriginal settlement.[37][38]

Aboriginal rock painting of Mimi spirits in the Anbangbang gallery at Nourlangie Rock in Kakadu National Park.

Rock Art Studies[edit]

The archaeological sub-discipline devoted to the investigation of rock art is known as "rock art studies." Rock art specialist David S. Whitley noted that research in this area required an "integrated effort" that brings together archaeological theory, method, fieldwork, analytical techniques and interpretation.[39]


Although French archaeologists had undertaken much research into rock art, Anglophone archaeology had largely neglected the subject for decades.[40]

The discipline of rock art studies witnessed what Whitley called a "revolution" during the 1980s and 1990s, as increasing numbers of archaeologists operating in the Anglophone world and in Latin America turned their attention to the subject.[41] In doing so, they recognised that rock art could be used to understand symbolic and religious systems, gender relations, cultural boundaries, cultural change and the origins of art and belief.[1] One of the most significant figures in this movement was the South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, who published his studies of San rock art from southern Africa, in which he combined ethnographic data to reveal the original purpose of the artworks. Lewis-Williams would come to be praised for elevating rock art studies to a "theoretically sophisticated research domain" by Whitley.[42]



  1. ^ a b c d Whitley 2005. p. 1.
  2. ^ a b Whitley 2005. pp. 1–2.
  3. ^ E. Goodall, Proceedings and Transactions of the Rhodesian Scientific Association 41:57-62, 1946: "Domestic Animals in rock art"
  4. ^ E. Goodall, Proceedings and Transactions of the Rhodesian Scientific Association 42:69-74, 1949: "Notes on certain human representations in Rhodesian rock art"
  5. ^ H. M. Chadwick, Origin Eng. Nation xii. 306, 1907: "The rock-carvings at Tegneby"
  6. ^ H. A. Winkler, Rock-Drawings of Southern Upper Egypt I. 26, 1938: "The discovery of rock-drawings showing boats of a type foreign to Egypt."
  7. ^ H. G. Wells, Outl. Hist. I. xvii. 126/1, 1920: From rock engravings we may deduce the theory that the desert was crossed from oasis to oasis.
  8. ^ Deutsch, Rem. 177, 1874: "The long rock-inscription of Hamamât."
  9. ^ Encycl. Relig. & Ethics I. 822/2, 1908: "The rock-paintings are either stenciled or painted in outline."
  10. ^ Man No. 119. 178/2, 1939: "On one of the stalactite pillars was found a big round stone with traces of red paint on its surface, as used in the rock-pictures"
  11. ^ G. Moore, The Lost Tribes and the Saxons of the East, 1861, Title page: "with translations of Rock-Records in India."
  12. ^ Tylor, Early Hist. Man. v. 88, 1865, "and bush art or bushmen art."
  13. ^ Trust For African Rock Art, East Africa, common terminology, "Rock-sculptures may often be symbolic boundary marks."
  14. ^ a b c d Whitley 2005. p. 3.
  15. ^ Whitley 2005. pp. 3–4.
  16. ^ The Tassili n’Ajjer: birthplace of ancient Egypt?
  17. ^ Whitley 2005. p. 4.
  18. ^ Whitley 2005. pp. 4–5.
  19. ^ Whitley 2005. p. 9.
  20. ^ Whitley 2005. pp. 7–9.
  21. ^ a b Whitley 2005. p. 11.
  22. ^ a b Whitley 2005. p. 13.
  23. ^ a b c Whitley 2005. p. 14.
  24. ^ Arca 2004. p. 319.
  25. ^ Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa (1973)
  26. ^ Choi, Charles. "Call this ancient rock carving 'little horny man'." Science on MSNBC. 22 Feb 2012. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  27. ^ Grace Rajnovich. (1994) Reading rock art: interpreting the Indian rock paintings of the Canadian Shield. Toronto:Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc.
  28. ^ Wilson, D. Ray (1990) Colorado Historical Tour Guide. Carpentersville, IL: Crossroads Communications. pp. 285-287. ISBN 0-916445-26-7.
  29. ^ The Rock Art Foundation. (retrieved 21 July 2011)
  30. ^ [ Oregon Rock Art]
  31. ^ Schaafsma, Polly. The Rock Art of Utah. (1994) ISBN 978-0-87480-435-5
  32. ^ Simms, Steven R. The Traces of Fremont: Society and Rock Art in Ancient Utah. (2010) ISBN 978-1-60781-011-7
  33. ^ "Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka". World Heritage Site. Retrieved 2007-02-15. 
  34. ^ "Native American Rock Art: Messages from the Past", by Yvette La Pierre
  35. ^
  36. ^ Akerman, Kim; Willing, Tim (March 2009). "An ancient rock painting of a marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, from the Kimberley, Western Australia". Antiquity (journal). Retrieved 11 December 2012. 
  37. ^
  38. ^
  39. ^ Whitley 2005. p. xi.
  40. ^ Whitley 2005. pp. viii, 1.
  41. ^ Whitley 2005. p. x.
  42. ^ Whitley 2005. p. viii.


  • Arca, Andrea (2004). "The topographical engravings of Alpine rock-art: fields, settlements and agricultural landscapes". The Figured Landscapes of Rock-Art (Cambridge University Press). pp. 318–349. 
  • Whitley, David S. (2005). Introduction to Rock Art Research. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press. ISBN 1598740008. 


  • Devlet, Ekaterina (2001). "Rock Art and the Material Culture of Siberian and Central Asian Shamanism". The Archaeology of Shamanism. pp. 43–54. Retrieved 01/04/2007. 
  • Malotki, Ekkehart and Weaver, Donald E. Jr., 2002, Stone Chisel and Yucca Brush: Colorado Plateau Rock Art, Kiva Publishing Inc., Walnut, CA, ISBN 1-885772-27-0 (cloth). For the "general public"; this book has well over 200 color prints with commentary on each site where the photos were taken; the organization begins with the earliest art and goes to modern times.
  • Rohn, Arthur H. and Ferguson, William M, 2006, Puebloan Ruins of the Southwest, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque NM, ISBN 0-8263-3970-0 (pbk, : alk. paper). Adjunct to the primary discussion of the ruins, contains color prints of rock art at the sites, plus interpretations.
  • Schaafsma, Polly, 1980, Indian Rock Art of the Southwest, School of American Research, Santa Fe, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque NM, ISBN 0-8263-0913-5. Scholarly text with 349 references, 32 color plates, 283 black and white "figures", 11 maps, and 2 tables.
  • Zboray, András, 2005, Rock Art of the Libyan Desert, Fliegel Jezerniczky, Newbury, United Kingdom (1st Edition 2005, 2nd expanded edition 2009). An illustrated catalogue and bibliography of all known prehistoric rock art sites in the central Libyan Desert (Arkenu, Uweinat and the Gilf Kebir plateau). The second edition contains more that 20000 photographs documenting the sites. Published on DVD-ROM.

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