Rock art in Europe

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Rock art paintings of aurochs at the Upper Palaeolithic cave site of Lascaux in southwestern France.

Rock art has been produced in Europe since the Upper Palaeolithic era through to recent centuries. It is found in all of the major regions of the continent.[1]

In the post-Palaeolithic period, during later prehistory, regional variants grew up across the continent, being produced by settled, agricultural communities.

Scholarly interest in European rock art began in the 17th century.[2]


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.[3] 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.[4] Rock art is a global phenomenon, being found in many different regions of the world.[5]

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.[4]

Although there are some exceptions, the majority of rock art whose creation was ethnographically recorded had been produced during rituals.[4] As such, the study of rock art is a component of the archaeology of religion.[6]

The academic field of rock art studies, a form of archaeology, investigates instances of past rock art to learn about the societies that produced it.

Upper Palaeolithic rock art[edit]

Neolithic, Copper Age and Bronze Age rock art[edit]

Atlantic European rock art[edit]

Various different forms of late prehistoric rock art have been found in Atlantic Europe, the coastal region that extends from the Straight of Gibraltar up to the British Isles.[7][8] Neolithic and Bronze Age rock art in the British Isles comprises primarily of cup and ring marks.

During the Early Bronze Age, which lasted from circa 2300 through to c.1500 BCE, various depictions of weaponry were engraved onto rock surfaces across Atlantic Europe.[9]

Northern European rock art[edit]

Alpine rock art[edit]

Engraved deer-hunting scene at Valcamonica.

Rock art engraved on open surfaces, rather than inside shelters or caves, was also produced in the mountainous Alpine region during later prehistory.[10] Found predominantly in the southern part of the Alps, in modern-day Italy and France, few examples of rock art have been identified from the northern slopes of the region, in what is now Switzerland and Germany.[11] Many engravings have been found in the region, along with a few rock paintings, and as such, scholars in rock art studies have divided the known collection into between 20 and 30 "regions" of Alpine rock art, the number depending upon how neighbouring occurrences are grouped.[12] These petroglyphs were usually carved with a fine-line technique which meant that they are only a few millimetres thick, and were typically produced on metamorphic rocks, sandstones and schists which are found sporadically across the Alpine chain, rather than on the more common calcareous rocks from which the mountains are geologically formed.[13]

Like with most rock art across the world, there are no physical-science methods yet available with which to accurately date the Alpine images, and instead archaeologists have relied on a relative chronology by comparing the pictures with artefacts that have been more securely dated.[14]

The two most prominent concentrations of rock art in the Alps are found at Mont Bégo in France and the valleys of Valcamonica and Valtellina in Italy, both of which far outnumber other areas for the amount of art that they contain.[15] At Mount Bego, in southwest France, near the Italian border, over 30,000 illustrated figures have been discovered in the valleys and outliers surrounding the mountain, situated on the high-altitude slopes far above the agricultural land. Archaeologists have dated to the images to the Copper and Bronze Ages, between 2500 and 1700 BCE, because many of the figures are depicted holding daggers and halberds which are stylistically consistent with this period. Similarly, many of the images depict oxen and ploughshares, meaning that they must have been produced following the adoption of agriculture during the Neolithic. It is believed that they all date from the same period, because they are all stylistically consistent and are in a similar state of preservation.[16]

At Valcamonica and Valtellina, two lengthy neighbouring valleys in the south-centre of the Alps, archaeologists have estimated the existence of around 300,000 figures, with depictions or humans and other animals, footprints, steep-roofed buildings, wheeled carts, boats and a large number of geometric shapes, lines, spirals and crosses. Although a few of the images found in Valtellina have been tentatively suggested to be post-glacial in date due to the Palaeolithic animal style they depict, the overwhelming majority of artworks are considered to be late prehistoric. Some of the motifs, such as those of humans in an orant posture with arms upraised in prayer or adoration, have been considered Neolithic, with others being attributed to the Copper, Bronze and Iron Ages, the latter being the most numerous. Some of the illustrations have been dated to the historic period, having been produced by the local Camuni people who lived within the Roman Empire, and subsequently also from the Medieval period.[17]




  • 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. 
  • Bradley, Richard (1998). "Daggers Drawn: depictions of Bronze Age weapons in Atlantic Europe". The Archaeology of Rock-Art (Cambridge University Press). pp. 130–145. 
  • Bradley, Richard; Chippindale, Christopher; Helskog, Knut (2001). "Post-Paleolithic Europe". Handbook of Rock Art Research (AltaMira Press). pp. 482–529. 
  • Whitley, David S. (2005). Introduction to Rock Art Research. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press. ISBN 1598740008. 

External links[edit]

  • EuroPreArt Database of European Prehistoric Art
  • [1] Database of European Prehistoric Art 2
  • [2] Images