Prehistoric Rock Art, Engravings, Carvings, Stone Reliefs.

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Blombos Cave Engravings, incised
on Ochre Stone, around 70,000 BCE.
East of Capetown, South Africa. The
earliest art of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Petroglyphs (290,000 - 4,000 BCE)


What Are Petroglyphs? Definition, Characteristics
What is the Difference Between Petroglyphs and Rock Art?
What Are the Oldest Petroglyths?
What Type of Petroglyphs Are Cupules?
What Was the Purpose, Function or Idea Behind Petroglyphs?
What Are the Most Famous Petroglyphs?

What Are Petroglyphs? - Definition, Characteristics

In prehistoric art, the term "petroglyphs" (derived from the Greek word "petra" meaning stone, and "glyphein" meaning to carve) is used to describe any image created on a rock surface by scouring, scratching, engraving, chiseling, carving or any similar method. Note, however, that painted or drawn images on rocks are not classified as petroglyphs: instead, they are defined as pictographs. Rock engravings are by far the most ubiquitous type of Stone Age art, having been found in all parts of the prehistoric world, with the greatest density in parts of Saharan Africa, South Africa, Scandinavia, Siberia, and Australia. Typical of this form of ancient art are the Wonderwerk Cave Engravings, discovered in Northern Cape Province, South Africa. Consisting of geometric designs, ideomorphs as well as representations of Animals, they date from the Neolithic period, about 8,200 BCE. (To see how this type of ancient stonework fits into the development of visual art during the period of prehistory, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.)



What is the Difference Between Petroglyphs and Rock Art?

Whereas a petroglyph is a narrow type of stonework, the term "rock art" is a much wider term which embraces three types of art: (1) Petroglyphs; (2) Pictographs, including cave painting or any other form of pictorial symbol; and (3) Megalithic Art, or petroforms, involving the arrangement of stones (eg. Stonehenge stone circle, Salisbury Plain, England).

Neither Venus figurines nor other types of prehistoric sculpture, like the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, or the animal ivory carvings of the Swabian Jura, are classified as petroglyphs, because they are portable rather than parietal (fixed to a rock surface).

What Are the Oldest Petroglyths?

The oldest art in this particular category of prehistoric rock carving are the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs in the Auditorium cave situated at Bhimbetka in India. Excavations at a sister site (Daraki-Chattan) have confirmed that the petroglyphs were created between 290,000 and 700,000 BCE, during the Acheulian period of the Lower Paleolithic.

What Are Cupules?

Cupules are non-functional cup-shaped depressions found on a rock surface which are created by a number of human blows. The rock surface at cupule-sites usually shows microscopic signs of percussion, such as particles of crushed material, surface bruising, and occasionally signs of tool marks. They are most common type of petroglyph in the world.

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

What Was the Purpose, Function or Idea Behind Petroglyphs?

It is impossible to generalize. A cupule, for instance, is a fundamentally different type of rock marking from (say) a relief sculpture or an animal engraving. As yet, no archeologist has provided a coherent explanation for the creation of cupules, while other types of rock engraving may serve as territorial maps or markers (geocontourglyph), or ritualistic, religious, totemic or linguistic markings. A recent study of the rock carvings produced by the San Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, was conducted by the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI) of the University of the Witwatersrand. It discovered a number of connections between this tribal art on the one hand, and San culture and religion (including healing and rain-making) on the other. For more about the cultural background to Stone Age carvings, and other parietal rock art, see: Paleolithic Art and Culture. Other important petroglyphs were the carvings and engravings found on megaliths at Gobekli Tepe, Newgrange and Stonehenge.


What Are the Most Famous Petroglyphs?

The best known rock engravings include:

Bhimbetka Petroglyphs, at (290,000-700,000 BCE)
Cupules carved on quartzite rock at Auditorium Cave, Madhya Pradesh, Central India. Technically, the oldest cave art on the planet.

Daraki-Chattan Petroglyphs (290,000-700,000 BCE)
Rock engravings at Indragarh Hill, Madhya Pradesh, Central India.

Blombos Cave Engravings (c.70,000 BCE)
Abstract engravings on ochre rock, 200 miles east of Capetown, South Africa, representing some of the oldest art yet found. For more about its crosshatch designs, see: Prehistoric Abstract Signs (40,000-10,000 BCE).

Ferrassie Cave Cupules (c.60,000 BCE)
Cupules on a Neanderthal tomb at Les Eyzies, Dordogne, France.
See also: Aurignacian Art and Culture (40,000-25,000 BCE).

Gorham's Cave Engraving (c.37,000 BCE)
Neanderthal stone etchings on dolomite in a cave on the southeast face of the Rock of Gibraltar.

Abri Castanet Engravings (c.35,000 BCE)
The oldest engraved drawings known to Franco-Cantabrian cave art, they were discovered on the underside of a huge collapsed ceiling block, in the French Dordogne.

Burrup Peninsula Rock Carvings (from 30,000 BCE but unconfirmed)
World's largest collection of petroglyphs, Pilbara, Western Australia.

Note: For other sites of Aboriginal Rock Art in Australia, please see: Ubirr Rock Art in Arnhem Land (from 30,000 BCE), Kimberley Rock Art Western Australia (30,000 BCE), the Gabarnmang charcoal drawing (26,000 BCE) in Arnhem Land, and the famous Bradshaw Paintings (Gwion) in the Kimberley (c.15,500 BCE).

Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures /Cave of Two Openings (c.26,500 BCE)
Animal engravings in the Ardeche Gorge, France.

Cosquer Cave (c.25,000 BCE)
Engraved drawings of animals, fish and seals, first produced during the era of Gravettian art, around 25,000 BCE.

Cussac Cave Engravings (c.25,000 BCE)
Large scale engraved drawings of Stone Age animals.

Gargas Cave Hand Stencils (c.25,000 BCE)
Although perhaps best known for its chilling hand stencils, Gargas also contains a wonderful collection of large scale animal engravings.

Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE)
Includes some 150 engraved drawings of prehistoric animals.

Abri du Poisson Cave Salmon Carving (c.23,000 BCE)
Bas-relief sculpture in limestone rock at Les Eyzies de Tayac, Perigord, Dordogne, France.

Coa Valley Engravings, Portugal (22,000 BCE)
The oldest prehistoric open air rock engravings in Europe.

Lascaux Cave (c.17,000-13,000 BCE)
Renowned for its animal engravings in the Axial Gallery, the Apse, the Nave and the Chamber of the Felines.

Cave of La Pasiega (c.16,000 BCE)
Petroglyphs featuring more than 100 engraved drawings of horses, ibexes and bison, plus a number of images of female genitalia.

Font de Gaume Cave (c.14,000 BCE)
This Dordogne rock shelter contains more than 200 engravings, as well as prehistoric hand stencils and handprints.

La Marche Cave (c.13,000 BCE)
Boasts numerous engraved drawings of human faces.

Les Combarelles Cave (c.12,000 BCE)
Has a massive collection of 600 engravings of animals.

Addaura Cave Engravings (c.11,000 BCE)
Limestone petroglyphs in Addaura Cave, Monte Pellegrino, Italy.
See: Magdalenian Art and Culture (15,000-10,000 BCE).

Wonderwerk Cave Engravings (c.8,200 BCE)
Animal and abstract designs in Northern Cape Province, South Africa.
See also: African Art.

Tassili-n-Ajjer Rock Art (c.8,000 BCE)
The best-known Mesolithic art in Saharan Africa, it consists of archaic-style engravings at Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria, North Africa.

Coldstream Burial Stone (c.6,000 BCE)
Coloured engravings on quartzite in Western Cape Province, South Africa.

Sydney Rock Engravings (c.5000 BCE)
"Simple figurative" images of people, animals and ideomorphs - carved in the sandstone around Sydney, NSW. See: Neolithic Art (c.6,000-2,000 BCE).

Dabous Giraffe Engravings (c.4,000 BCE)
Taureg culture rock engravings at Agadez, Niger, Africa.

Newgrange Megalithic Passage Tomb (c.3,300 BCE)
Neolithic spiral engravings near the main entrance.
See: Newgrange Megalithic Passage Tomb.

Stonehenge Stone Circle (c.3100-1100 BCE)
Famous neolithic stone monument, located on Salisbury Plain, UK.
See: Stonehenge Stone Circle.

Knowth Megalithic Passage Tomb (c.2500 BCE)
Neolithic geometric carvings, lunar maps and sun-dial on mound kerbstones.
See: Knowth Megalithic Passage Tomb.

• For details of cave painting, engravings and reliefs, see Parietal Art (c.40,000-10,000 BCE)
• For information about painting and sculpture, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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