Prehistoric Rock Engravings
Definition, Characteristics, Types of Figurative Rock Art.

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Painted Engraving of a bison.
Font-de-Gaume Cave (c.14,000 BCE)
See also: Oldest art.

Prehistoric Rock Engravings (From 30,000 BCE)
Figure Drawings of Animals and Humans on Rocks


Definition and Characteristics
What's the Difference Between Prehistoric Engravings, Drawings, Paintings?
A Common Type of Upper Paleolithic Art
Engraving or Relief Sculpture?
Famous Sites of Paleolithic Engravings
Neolithic Open-Air Engravings
Famous Sites of Neolithic Engravings
Related Articles

For a guide to chronology, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

Unpainted Engraving of Lioness
Les Combarelles Cave (c.12,000 BCE)

Definition and Characteristics

In prehistoric art, the term "engraving" usually refers to a drawing made by a sharp tool, lithic flake or sharpened stone on the wall, floor or ceiling of a cave. Good examples include the engraved drawings in the caves of Lascaux, Les Combarelles, Cussac and Trois-Freres. Due to their association with caves, Stone Age engravings are commonly seen as a type of parietal art, rather than a type of open-air rock art, even though archeologists are discovering more and more outdoor sites that contain engraved drawings. A good example is the Upper Paleolithic site at Vila Nova de Foz Coa in northeastern Portugal, which dates back to the era of Gravettian art (c.22,000 BCE). Nearly all the decorated rock shelters in France and Spain contain engravings, and some (Les Combarelles, Cussac) contain only engravings.

What's the Difference Between Prehistoric Engravings, Drawings and Paintings?

To explain the difference between prehistoric engraving, drawing and cave painting, we need to understand the three basic stages in the making of a prehistoric animal picture. First, the outline and basic features are drawn on the cave wall. This is done by scoring the surface of the rock with a sharp implement, or by applying a black outline using manganese pigment or a piece of charcoal. Second, the finished outline of the animal, or its body, may often (but not always) be painted (that is, coloured) with one or more pigments. (See Prehistoric colour palette for details.) Lastly, the drawing or painting may be shaded with black (or another) pigment to enhance its three-dimensional quality. In other words, a cave painting is any picture which is coloured with pigment; a drawing is any unpainted picture; and an engraving is any picture drawn by scoring or incising lines on the wall surface, regardless of whether it is painted or unpainted. (Note: For the world's oldest known parietal art, see: El Castillo Cave Paintings (39,000 BCE).

A Common Type of Upper Paleolithic Art

Figurative engravings - whether or not painted - are the predominant form of cave art throughout the Northern Spain and southern France. They are less famous than the paintings because they are less striking, but they are more numerous. Typically made with a flint or edged stone, the type of engraved mark varied enormously. Most often, the engraver was happy to sketch the outlines of an animal using simple lines. These could be deep and wide or shallow and narrow, according to the softness of the rock surface or the intentions of the artist. Many of the engraved drawings made during the era of Aurignacian art (40,000-25,000 BCE) are now hardly visible, but modern replication techniques reveal that they were far more noticeable when they were first created, as their white-ish lines contrasted strongly with the darker colour of the cave wall. Over time however, the incisions have faded, which perhaps explains the large number of superimpositions of drawings that can be seen in sites of later Magdalenian art, like Lascaux, Les Trois Freres, or Les Combarelles. As far as subject-matter is concerned, most prehistoric engravings are of animals, but two exceptions are worth noting: the extraordinary engraved human figures discovered in the Addaura cave, Monte Pellegrino, in Italy; and the engraved drawing of the "Sorcerer" in the Trois Freres cave, in France.

See also: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Artworks.

Engraving or Relief Sculpture?

What's the difference between a prehistoric engraving of a bison, or a relief sculpture of a bison? The answer is, "less than you think". After all, what is a relief except a deep engraving? This is well illustrated by the Gravettian salmon relief at the Abri du Poisson Cave (23,000 BCE) in the Perigord, and by the Solutrean art (c.17,000 BCE) at the Roc-de-Sers Cave near Gachedou in the Charente, where numerous limestone blocks were engraved or sculpted with more than fifty pictures of bison. The actual difference between some of the engravings and reliefs is relatively slight. (See also: Prehistoric Sculpture.)

Famous Sites of Paleolithic Rock Engravings

Blombos Cave Engravings (c.70,000 BCE)
Two fragments of rock engraved with abstract geometric patterns, found in a cave close to the coast of South Africa. The oldest cave art in Africa.

Diepkloof Eggshell Engravings (c.60,000 BCE)
Intricate engraved crosshatch patterns and other abstract markings on ostrich eggshells used to carry water. Second oldest parietal art in Africa.

Gorham's Cave Neanderthal Engravings (c.37,000 BCE)
Crosshatch engraving on dolomite stone surface, allegedly created by Neanderthal artists.

Abri Castanet Engravings (c.35,000 BCE)
Engraved images of male and female genitalia.

Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures (Cave of Two Openings) (26,500 BCE)
Aurignacian era shelter in the French Ardeche noted for its engraved pictographs of aurochs and woolly mammoths.

Cussac Cave Engravings (c.25,000 BCE)
Dordogne Gravettian cave best-known for its large scale engraved drawings of horses, bison and mammoths.

Gargas Cave Art (25,000 BCE)
Large scale engraved drawings and shocking hand stencils.

Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE)
A neighbour of Pech Merle Cave in the Lot region, Roucadour Cave is noted in particular for its rock engravings of animals and birds.

Salmon of Abri du Poisson Cave (c.23,000 BCE)
Marvellous life-size carving of a male salmon etched into the ceiling of the tiny rock shelter.

Coa Valley Engravings, Portugal (c.22,000 BCE)
The major Portuguese site of the Gravettian era, containing thousands of engraved drawings of horses, cattle and other animals, as well as human figures.

La Pileta Cave (c.18,000 BCE)
Andalucian site containing a variety of engraved drawings of aurochs, horses and other beasts.

Roc-de-Sers Cave (c.17,000 BCE)
Marvellous centre of Solutrean engravings and other carvings.

Cave of La Pasiega (c.16,000 BCE)
Upper Solutrean and the Lower Magdalenian Stone Age art, comprising engravings and incised images of equines, cervids and bovines.

Lascaux Cave (c.17,000-13,000 BCE)
One of the world's great showcases of Franco-Cantabrian cave art, its walls are covered with engraved drawings throughout its length, but especially in the Axial Gallery (also called the Painted Gallery) the Apse, the Nave and the Chamber of the Felines.

Altamira Cave (c.15,000)
Although the cave's club-shaped abstract signs date back to 34,000 BCE, the glorious painted engravings of bison on the ceiling of the main gallery are Magdalenian in origin.

Font de Gaume Cave (c.14,000 BCE)
Another Dordogne cave, it contains more than 200 engravings, including pictures of 80 bisons and 40 mammoths, as well as prehistoric hand stencils and handprints.

Tuc d'Audoubert Bison Relief (c.13,500 BCE)
This magnificent Magdalenian work is carved in high relief, clearly distinguishing it from any form of rock engraving. Compare with the salmon relief at the Abri du Poisson shelter.

Trois Freres Cave (c.13,000 BCE)
In addition to the engraved drawing of the "Sorcerer" mentioned above, the cave contains a chamber known as the Chapel of the Lioness, dominated by a life-size engraving of a lioness.

Roc-aux-Sorciers (c.12,000 BCE)
Contains an exceptional limestone frieze of relief sculpture, plus numerous engravings of animals.

Les Combarelles Cave (c.12,000 BCE)
A major sanctuary of Paleolithic art of the late Magdalenian, this Dordogne cave is renowned for its huge collection of some 600 engravings of Stone Age animals as well as a single hand stencil.

Addaura Cave (11,000 BCE)
Features an extraordinary sacrificial or ritualistic scene with two victims, shamans ans a watching, dancing crowd.

Outside Europe

Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) Rock Art (c.30,000 BCE but unconfirmed)
One of the most famous areas of Aboriginal rock art, it contains an estimated 1 million prehistoric rock engravings, including drawings of human figures and faces, as well as extinct animals like the Tasmanian tiger. Despite using cosmic radiation dating techniques (measuring levels of Berylllium 10), few petroglyphs have been confirmed as dating earlier than 10,000 BCE, although advanced age dates are anticipated.

• Smaller-scale examples from Australia include: Kimberley Rock Art and Ubirr Rock Art, both traditions believed to date from about 30,000 BCE.

Neolithic Open-Air Engravings

As the hunter-gatherer Ice Age cultures of the Upper Paleolithic eventually gave way to the warmer and more settled conditions of the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras, Stone Age man abandoned his caves and his cave art for ever.

The glaciers of the north began to disappear while vast forests covered the European steppes. A milder more humid temperature succeeded the rigorous cold. The great mammals on which man lived, emigrated or disappeared. Man began to prefer living on the shores of lakes, rivers and the sea, bringing his dwelling places more and more out into the open. He made new tools for fishing and sea hunting. Other than his new interest in mobiliary art, his artistic work was limited to drawings, and to "Alphabetiform" signs on shields.

Only in certain areas did the tradition of figurative engraving persist, and only at open air sites. The most famous of these sites exemplify the traditions of early African art throughout the continent of Africa. Engraving techniques varied from area to area, but in addition to the earlier flint or sharpened stone methods, Neolithic artists hammered out their markings and lines with a little hard stone, creating thousands of tiny peck-marks in order to engrave the required image. Many images, especially those left undecorated with colour pigments, have since lost their sharpness as their original lines have long since merged into the same colour as the surrounding rock.

Famous Sites of Neolithic Engravings

Tassili-n-Ajjer (Algeria, N Africa) (c.8,000 BCE)
Archaic tradition engravings of herds of cattle, large animals such as antelopes, buffalo, crocodiles, and humans engaged in hunting and dancing, such as the engraved drawing of a sleeping antelope, discovered at Tin Taghirt on the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau in south-east Algeria on the borders of Libya and Niger. See also: Mesolithic Art.

Sydney Rock Engravings (NSW, Australia) (c.5,000 BCE)
These figurative drawings incised into sandstone include meticulously drawn figures of people and animals, characterized by their "simple figurative" style which dates back to the start of Neolithic art.

Dabous Giraffe Engravings (Agadez, Niger, Africa) (c.4,000 BCE)
These Neolithic Saharan engravings of the Taureg culture are noted for their naturalism, perspective and anatomical detail. Elephants, gazelles, crocodiles and cattle are also depicted.

Niola Doa (Beautiful Ladies) (Ennedi, Chad, Africa) (c.3,000 BCE)
This series of monumental female figures on the Ennedi Plateau continue the human figurative tradition of Saharan Africa, begun around 5,500 BCE.

Related Articles

• For details of fertility effigies, see: Venus Figurines (35,000-10,000 BCE)
• For a guide to the oldest artworks, see: Earliest Art.


• For more information about Stone Age engraved drawings, see: Homepage.

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