World Rock Art Traditions


The urge to decorate seems a defining characteristic of modern human populations. There are objects we classify today as ‘art’ such as the ground-and-polished mammoth tooth found in Tata, Hungary which date back tens-of-thousands of years. Rock art may well predate even the earliest artifacts, but that is difficult to determine.

So what is rock art?

Pictographs at Newspaper Rock.

…pretty much what it sounds like, it is art made on stone surfaces. Most rock art falls into one of two categories: petroglyphs or pictographs. 

The first type (petroglyphs) are designs carved or abraded onto a rock surface. The second type (pictographs) are painted designs on rock surfaces.

Chumash pictographs.

People are curious about what rock art patterns represent and how long ago the designs were created. Both questions can be tough to answer – unless you’re just making things up. Professionals try to avoid that.

Because it’s easier, let’s start with the methods for establishing the age of a rock art sample. This is dependent on the locale, the environment, the degree of preservation, and a lot of other factors.


1. The growth of certain lichens on the surface of a petroglyph may provide a relative estimate of time. Some lichens grow extremely slow and can prove an indication of longevity. Sounds weird, eh?

2. Depending on the type of stone, exposed surfaces can appear a different color than the interior. Re-patination of the surface takes place after the stone is chipped and a relative date can be inferred based on the variance in color. I’m not making this up.

3. In rare cases the subject matter depicted in the rock art can actually help date the site to a specific moment in history. For example, the supernova of 1054 was recorded by rock art practitioners around the globe…at least for those who had a clear view of the sky.


4. In some cases rock art is found in close association with organic materials which can be dated. I’ve seen this in rock shelters in the American west where people lived at the base of a cliff, carved rock art in the cliff-face that was subsequently buried by debris. Radiocarbon results from the organic material provide an associated correllation.

5. In rare instances the pigmentation used in a pictograph might be dated, if a large enough sample is acquired (doubtful without damaging the painting). Recent technological innovations make this more probable because they require smaller sample sizes.

Clues in the rock...

6. Artistry can be traced from one location to another. Designs cross over into other forms like pottery and are even found in modern derivations. How cool would it be to identify a singular artist at work? No dice…somebody wrote a novel about that already.

Relative dating methods are used most commonly with rock art, which means the resulting ages are based on comparative measures. Absolute dating is difficult because of the natural lack of organic material which can be used to produce results in a laboratory setting. Testing the rock only tells you how old it is, not when human hands manipulated it into an abstract idea.

The meaning behind the majority of rock art remains a mystery. That doesn’t keep people from assuming they can interpret it correctly. Like much of what we know about prehistory, we’ve viewed it through the lens of our own values and traditions, making sense of what seems familiar and dismissing anything that does not.

I can make it look like an accident!

Symbolism is not easily interpreted. At least, not if you’re interested in accuracy. Descendents of the people who created surviving rock art, often provide insight into ancient forms, but styles change and grow just as culture does. Meaning is lost. None of us live the same way our ancestors did even 100 years ago. Occasionally a rock art panel or relief displays historical events that assist in placing it in a linear timeline. Most remain undeciphered.

When it comes to interpretation, if it looks like a tree we assume that’s what the maker was trying to convey. Designs that appear to represent recognizable forms and shapes are typed as naturalistic. Stylized designs are more difficult because they’re abstracted. Think of rock art as a visual language with the people who were fluent, dead and gone.

Anthropomorphic is a fancy way of saying that a rock art form exhibits characteristics that look more human; whereas zoomorphic is a fancy way of saying that a form represents an animal…and sometimes you can’t quite decide.

Rock art is not a lost tradition either, it continues to be practiced in many parts of the world. To characterize it as graffiti is to devalue the importance it likely played in the prehistoric world. Likewise, to assume it had some greater spiritual significance simply because we don’t know any different, may assign it a religious connotation it never claimed. 

Protecting rock art sites is vital.

There is no universal method for managing or protecting rock art sites. Each locale has unique human, geological and environmental problems that change over time. The single most important guiding principal in managing rock art sites is to be proactive. Vandalism, graffiti, exposure, erosion, construction, and human interaction all destroy these fragile links to the past.

Prehistory is not a natural resource, it is non-renewable. Once destroyed, these remarkable bits of our collective history are gone forever. If you’re interested in learning more, visit these sites:

     ~ American Rock Art Research Association 
     ~ The Rock Art Foundation
     ~ Rock Art Project, Tanzania
     ~ South African Rock Art Project
     ~ Bradshaw Foundation
     ~ Prehistoric Studies Center, Italy
     ~ Colorado Rock Art Association
     ~ Eastern States Rock Art Research Association
     ~ Scandinavian Society for Prehistoric Art

If there isn’t a site for the area you’re interested in, just search the web. Prehistory surrounds us. Do you know what historic delights are in your vicinity? Check it out, why don’tcha?

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  1. #1 by john McGovern on January 13, 2012 - 9:56 pm

    check this information on petroglyph, pictograph and megalith sites globally showing a reflection of high energy geomagnetic storms from solar super flares.

    cheers john

    • #2 by Leslie on January 16, 2012 - 9:20 am

      Thanks for visiting John.

      I visited the links you left and found them very interesting. I was reminded of how archaeoastronomy was viewed with some trepidation when researchers began to propose that ancient people had been alertly aware of celestial phenomena. Nowadays nobody questions that but even twenty years ago there were folks (even professionals with lots of acadmic accolades) who pooh-poohed the idea. I love the concerted effort of individuals to explore ideas that celebrate the achievements of the ancients rather than relegating their accompishments to the realm of “somebody else did it”.

      I’ll be reading along. =)

      • #3 by john McGovern on January 16, 2012 - 5:03 pm

        Here is an 4,600 year old aboriginal astronomy site,

        A SECRET Aboriginal sacred site just north of the You Yangs is at the centre of a land battle.

        The stone circle, said to be older than Stonehenge, is an astronomical marker. Its two straighter sides point to where the sun rises on the shortest and longest days of the year.

        Stonehenge dates from about 2500 BC, and the earliest pyramid in Egypt was built from about 2630 BC, suggesting the local Aborigines could have been the world’s first astronomers.

        Known as Wurdi Youang, the site lies on Wathaurong Co-Operative land, which could be acquired by the State Government after it was last year designated part of a grassland reserve.

        Wathaurong cultural officer Reg Abrahams said the co-op was granted the land in 2006 and were investigating having it declared an Indigenous Protected Area, which would likely see it become part of the National Reserve System.

        However, the planned expansion of Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary will see a large area of land closer to Geelong including the stone circle site set aside as grassland reserve area and unable to be developed in any way.

        Your Say
        “PJ Bear, good on you for not being narrow minded.”

        Mr Abrahams said it was hoped that one day community training and programs could be held at the site, which could be a good base for Aboriginal cultural tourism in the area.

        In the meantime, the exact location of the ancient stone circle is a closely guarded secret, but it may be opened to the public in the future and become something of a tourist Mecca.

        Mr Abrahams said astrophysicists wanted to conduct some tests on the stone circle to determine its age.

        “But they believe it is older than Stonehenge in England,” he said.

        “It basically aligns with the winter solstice, the summer solstice and the equinoxes which is the shortest day of the year, the longest day of the year, and the 12 hours day and 12 hours night.

        “We’ve got another site at a quarry near the You Yangs, which has been radio-carbon dated to about 12,500 years ago.”

        CSIRO scientists have said the site would need some careful study to put a precise date on it.

        Monash University Aboriginal archaeologist Dr Ian McNiven said yesterday there were some new techniques available that could be used to date the site.

        Dr McNiven said one of these had to be carried out at night. It involved lifting up one of the stones, taking a soil sample and testing it to see how long since it had been exposed to sunlight.

        “It would need a very stable landscape to have survived that long, but it’s not impossible,” he said.

        “There are some very old stable landscapes around so it’s not inconceivable that something on the surface could be of that age, especially if it was used generation after generation so that it has been looked after.

        “Some of those sites can go back thousands of years.”

        cheers john

      • #4 by john McGovern on January 16, 2012 - 5:48 pm

        A New Yorker archeologist dug 15 feet under New York city subways and reported , ” We have found undergound telecommunication cables 15 feet underground, proof that New Yorkers had telephones 100 years ago”.

        Not to be out done, the next week, a Cailfornia archeologist reported; ” We have dug down 25 feet under Los Angeles and discovered telecommunication cables, proof that Californians had telephones 150 years ago.”

        The next week, a Texan archeologists reported: ” We have dug down 50 feet under Abilene, Texas and found NOTHING;…proof that Texans had wireless communication 200 years ago.”

        • #5 by Leslie on January 25, 2012 - 1:17 pm

          This is hilarious….

  2. #6 by Debra Eve | Later Bloomer on January 20, 2012 - 12:33 pm

    Waving from WANA1011. Loved this and happy to find another writing anthopologist! Actually worked on a Newgrange-type site with gorgeous spiral art.

    • #7 by Leslie on January 23, 2012 - 8:53 am

      Hi Debra! *waving* from WANA711…

      Glad you visited and liked the rock art bit. I was excited to find another writing anthropologist too! I love the tangible quality of rock art, a physical link to the past. Spiral designs are so interesting because they cross boundaries everywhere. Thanks for dropping in!

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