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Rock carving known as "Meerkatze" (named by archaeologist Leo Frobenius), rampant lionesses in Wadi Methkandoush, Mesak Settafet region of Libya.
European petroglyphs: Laxe dos carballos in Campo Lameiro, Galicia, Spain (4th–2nd millennium BCE), depicting cup and ring marks and deer hunting scenes
Petroglyph of a camel; Negev, southern Israel.
Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara, Sri Lanka. The remains of the image house that originally enclosed it can be seen.

Petroglyphs are images created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, carving, or abrading, as a form of rock art. Outside North America, scholars often use terms such as "carving", "engraving", or other descriptions of the technique to refer to such images. Petroglyphs are found worldwide, and are often associated with prehistoric peoples. The word comes from the Greek word petro-, theme of the word "petra" meaning "stone", and glyphein meaning "to carve", and was originally coined in French as pétroglyphe.

The term petroglyph should not be confused with petrograph, which is an image drawn or painted on a rock face. Both types of image belong to the wider and more general category of rock art or parietal art. Petroforms, or patterns and shapes made by many large rocks and boulders over the ground, are also quite different. Inukshuks are also unique, and found only in the Arctic (except for reproductions and imitations built in more southerly latitudes).

A more developed form of petroglyph, normally found in literate cultures, a rock relief or rock-cut relief is a relief sculpture carved on solid or "living rock" such as a cliff, rather than a detached piece of stone. They are a category of rock art, and sometimes found in conjunction with rock-cut architecture.[1] However, they tend to be omitted in most works on rock art, which concentrate on engravings and paintings by prehistoric peoples. A few such works exploit the natural contours of the rock and use them to define an image, but they do not amount to man-made reliefs. Rock reliefs have been made in many cultures, and were especially important in the art of the Ancient Near East.[2] Rock reliefs are generally fairly large, as they need to be to make an impact in the open air. Most have figures that are over life-size, and in many the figures are multiples of life-size.

Stylistically they normally relate to other types of sculpture from the culture and period concerned, and except for Hittite and Persian examples they are generally discussed as part of that wider subject.[3] The vertical relief is most common, but reliefs on essentially horizontal surfaces are also found. The term typically excludes relief carvings inside caves, whether natural or themselves man-made, which are especially found in India. Natural rock formations made into statues or other sculpture in the round, most famously at the Great Sphinx of Giza, are also usually excluded. Reliefs on large boulders left in their natural location, like the Hittite İmamkullu relief, are likely to be included, but smaller boulders may be called stele or carved orthostats.


Composite image of petroglyphs from Scandinavia (Häljesta, Västmanland in Sweden). Nordic Bronze Age. The glyphs have been painted to make them more visible.
A petroglyph of a caravan of bighorn sheep near Moab, Utah, United States; a common theme in glyphs from the desert southwest

Some petroglyphs are dated to approximately the Neolithic and late Upper Paleolithic boundary, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, if not earlier (Kamyana Mohyla). Sites in Australia have petroglyphs that are estimated to be as much as 27,000 years old, and in other places could be as old as 40,000 years. Around 7,000 to 9,000 years ago, other precursors of writing systems, such as pictographs and ideograms, began to appear. Petroglyphs were still common though, and some cultures continued using them much longer, even until contact with Western culture was made in the 20th century. Petroglyphs have been found in all parts of the globe except Antarctica with highest concentrations in parts of Africa, Scandinavia, Siberia, southwestern North America and Australia.


There are many theories to explain their purpose, depending on their location, age, and the type of image. Some petroglyphs are thought to be astronomical markers, maps, and other forms of symbolic communication, including a form of "proto-writing". Petroglyph maps may show trails, symbols communicating time and distances traveled, as well as the local terrain in the form of rivers, landforms and other geographic features. A petroglyph that represents a landform or the surrounding terrain is known as a geocontourglyph. They might also have been a by-product of other rituals: sites in India, for example, have been identified as musical instruments or "rock gongs".[4]

Some petroglyph images probably have deep cultural and religious significance for the societies that created them; in many cases this significance remains for their descendants. Many petroglyphs are thought to represent some kind of not-yet-fully understood symbolic or ritual language. Later glyphs from the Nordic Bronze Age in Scandinavia seem to refer to some form of territorial boundary between tribes, in addition to possible religious meanings. It also appears that local or regional dialects from similar or neighboring peoples exist. The Siberian inscriptions look similar to an early form of runes, although there is not thought to be any relationship between them. They are not yet well understood.

Some researchers have noticed the resemblance of different styles of petroglyphs across different continents; while it is expected that all people would be inspired by their surroundings, it is harder to explain the common styles. This could be mere coincidence, an indication that certain groups of people migrated widely from some initial common area, or indication of a common origin. In 1853, George Tate read a paper to the Berwick Naturalists' Club, at which a John Collingwood Bruce agreed that the carvings had "... a common origin, and indicate a symbolic meaning, representing some popular thought."[5] In his cataloguing of Scottish rock art, Ronald Morris summarised 104 different theories on their interpretation.[6]

Other, more controversial, explanations are grounded in Jungian psychology and the views of Mircea Eliade. According to these theories it is possible that the similarity of petroglyphs (and other atavistic or archetypal symbols) from different cultures and continents is a result of the genetically inherited structure of the human brain.

Other theories suggest that petroglyphs were made by shamans in an altered state of consciousness,[7] perhaps induced by the use of natural hallucinogens. Many of the geometric patterns (known as form constants) which recur in petroglyphs and cave paintings have been shown by David Lewis-Williams to be "hard-wired" into the human brain; they frequently occur in visual disturbances and hallucinations brought on by drugs, migraine and other stimuli.

Recent analysis of surveyed and GPS logged petroglyphs around the world has identified commonalities indicating pre-historic (7,000–3,000 B.C.) intense auroras observable across the continents.[8][9] Specific common associated archetypes include: squatting man, caterpillars, ladders, eye mask, kokopelli, spoked wheels, and others.

Present-day links between shamanism and rock art amongst the San people of the Kalahari desert have been studied by the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI) of the University of the Witwatersrand.[10] Though the San people's artworks are predominantly paintings, the beliefs behind them can perhaps be used as a basis for understanding other types of rock art, including petroglyphs. To quote from the RARI website:

Using knowledge of San beliefs, researchers have shown that the art played a fundamental part in the religious lives of its San painters. The art captured things from the San's world behind the rock-face: the other world inhabited by spirit creatures, to which dancers could travel in animal form, and where people of ecstasy could draw power and bring it back for healing, rain-making and capturing the game.

List of petroglyph sites[edit]




 Central African Republic[edit]

  • Bambari, Lengo and Bangassou in the south; Bwale in the west
  • Toulou
  • Djebel Mela
  • Koumbala


 Republic of the Congo[edit]


  • Wadi Hammamat in Qift, many carvings and inscriptions dating from before the earliest Egyptian Dynasties to the modern era, including the only painted petroglyph known from the Eastern Desert and drawings of Egyptian reed boats dated to 4000 BCE
  • Inscription Rock in South Sinai, is a large rock with carvings and writings ranging from Nabatean to Latin, Ancient Greek and Crusder eras located a few miles from the Ain Hudra Oasis. There is also a second rock approximately 1 km from the main rock near the Nabatean tombs of Nawamis with carvings of animals including Camels, Gazelles and others. The original archaeologists who investigated these in the 1800s have also left their names carved on this rock.
  • Giraffe petroglyphs found in the region of Gebel el-Silsila. The rock faces have been used for extensive quarrying of materials for temple building especially during the period specified as the New Kingdom. The Giraffe depictions are located near a stela of the king Amenhotep IV. The images are not dated, but they are probably dated from the Predynastic periods.



  • Ogooue River Valley
  • Epona
  • Elarmekora
  • Kongo Boumba
  • Lindili
  • Kaya Kaya





 South Africa[edit]




Petroglyphs at Ughtasar, Armenia



 Hong Kong[edit]

Eight sites in Hong Kong:


Petroglyphs in Ladakh, India

Recently petroglyphs were found at Kollur village in Tamil Nadu. A large dolmen with four petroglyphs that portray men with trident and a wheel with spokes has been found at Kollur near Triukoilur 35 km from Villupuram. The discovery was made by K.T. Gandhirajan. This is the second instance when a dolmen with petrographs has been found in Tamil Nadu, India.[15]


Map of petroglyphs and pictographs of Iran

Iran Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs in Teimareh, Khomein, Iran

During recent years a large number of rock carvings has been identified in different parts of Iran. The vast majority depict the ibex.[16][17] Rock drawings were found in December 2016 near Khomeyn, Iran, which may be the oldest drawings discovered, with one cluster possibly 40,000 years old. Accurate estimations were unavailable due to US sanctions.[18]

Petroglyphs are the most  ancient works of art left by human kind that secretly provide an opening to the past eras of life and help us to discover different aspects of prehistoric lives. Tools to create petroglyphs can be classified by the age and the historical era; they could be flint, thighbone of hunted quarries, or metallic tools. The oldest Pictographs in Iran are seen  in Yafteh cave in Lorestan that date back 40000 and the oldest petroglyph discovered belongs to Timareh dating back to 40800 years ago.

Pictograph of lorestan (koohdasht) 10000 BCE

Iran provides exclusive demonstrations  of script formation from pictogram, ideogram, linear (2300 BC) or proto Elamite, geometric old Elamite script, Pahlevi script, Arabic script (906 years ago), Kufi script, and Farsi script back to at least 250 years ago.  More than 50000 petroglyphs have been discovered, extended over all Iran's states.[19]

Curious boy sitting near petroglyphs

     Petroglyphs in Iran follow the same general categorization:

1-Pictographs that contain pictures drawn by pigments like smut, crystalized blood, ocher, that were employed by binders like animal fats, blood, seed oil and organic compounds  or a mixture of all materials mentioned above. Lorestan has the most and oldest pictographs in Iran. Yafteh cave in Lorestan has pictographs dating back to 40000 years ago.Compared to petroglyphs, pictographs in Iran are scarce and rare.Sites that contain pictographs are listed as follows:

a.      Lorestan state : caves like Hamian1 and Hamian2, Mir Molas around Kuhdasht, Dousheh, and Kalmakareh. b.      Hormozgan state : Ahu cavern in Bastak c.       Kerman state:Lashkour Gouyeh in Meymand d.      Northern Khorasan : Nargeslou cavern around Bojnord 1.      Petroglyph include most discovered items in Iran, extended on states  as follows: a.      East Azerbayejan: Arasbaran. b.      West Azerbayejan : Khoreh Hanjeran around Mahabad. c.       Isfahan : around cities like Golpayegan, Poshtkouh Khowansar, Teeran, Najaf Abad, Damab, Barzak near Kashan, Nashlaj village, Baghbaderan, and Meimeh. d.      Ardebil: sites around Shahriry, Sheikh Mady, and Ghah Ghahe castle in Meshkin Shahr. e.      Tehran:Dowlat Abad village near Sharyar, Kaftar lou mountain. f.        Southern Khorasan:Lakh Mazar of Birjand,  Tengel Ostad, Bijaem, and Nahbandan. g.      Northern Khorasan:Nargeslou and Jorbat around Bojnord, and Bam Safi Abad near Esferayen. h.      Khouzestan: Lam Gerdou cavern around Shushtar. i.        Zanjan:Ejdeha cave near Veer village, around Abhar j.        Systan and Baluchestan: [caves around] Saravan, Khash, Nikshahr, Nazil, Ghasre Ghand, and Bazman. k.      Semnan:Chehel Dohktaran E Rashm mountain, near Damghan.

Bojnoord (nargesloo) rock arts in Iran

l.        Kerman:Meymand, Shah Firouz near Sirjan, Farash near Jiroft, Sarcheshmeh, and Rafsanjan. m.    Kurdistan:Dehgolan, Saral, Kancharmi near Bijar, Huraman, and Carafto cave. n.      Kermanshah:Sorkhe Liziha, Cheshmeh Sohrab near Meravza, Dinevar, Songhor, and Harseen. o.      Fars: Abadeh, Gheer near Kazeroun. p.      Ghazvin:Chalalmbar, Yazli Ghelich Kendi, Yeri Jan YazGholi, AhgaGhoy, and Bayan Lou near Boein Zahara. q.      Lorestan:Moi Malas and Hamian near Kouhdasht, Khomeh near Aligoudarz, Mihad near Borojerd, Dareh Yal near Azna, Yafteh and Dousheh caves. r.        Mazenderan:Nava summer village around Bala Larijan near Amol. s.       Markazi:Ebrahim Abad near Arak, Ahmad Abad near Khondab, Farsi Jan, Shazand, Susan Abad near Farahan, Poshtgodar near Mahallat, Sarough, Sarband, Ravanj  near Delijan, Yasavol near Komijan, and 31 sites of Timereh near Khomein. t.        Hormozgan:Ahu cavern and Dehtol near Bastak u.       Hamedan :Alvand Shahrestaneh valley, Ganjnameh valley, Mehrabad Noushijaneh near Malayer, Merianj, Nahavand, Ordoshahan mountains

Yazd:Tabas Nahrin valley, Ernan mountain, Hikhteh mountain, Sorkh Dodoushan mountain, Nasrabad village near Taft, Showaz, Ganj valley

The most recent chronology of petroglyphs in Iran was done employing the General Accelerator Spectrometer  in 2008 that helped gather data from random samples; though, this is a demanding job that needs a systematic and comprehensive supported effort.

The following table offers the first classification of petroglyphs according to redundancy and frequency 

The theme occurrence of petroglyphs by random sampling(  percentage )
percentage carvings number
88 Ibex, symbolically depicted by a long curved horn that extends to tail. 1
3 Human figures as in rituals, roping [cattles], using arches on the back of the horses or on-foot, hunting dressed or not and etc… 2
2 Cupmarks, codes, scripts, … 3
2 Wild or domestic horses, being rode or not, in different postures. 4
1 Camels with one or two humps. birds . 5
1 Pictographs of cats family like leopards, scaled skin  tigers, male and female lions, dog family like wolves, dogs, foxes. Mice, pigs,… 6
1 Deer(Maral, Shooka), antelopes, … 7
1 Extincted unrecognizable  animals. 8
.5 Geometric marks. 9
.5 Botanic  marks. 10

One of the characteristics of Iran’s petroglyphs is the continuity of existence of prehistoric marks on the ancient  potteries and bronze sculptures that reveal the impressiveness of petroglyphs of the facades of caves and rocks reflected on ancient work of arts.

This continuity can be traced from eighth millennium BC  by the potteries in Ganj Darreh near Harseen  in Kermanshah state, to  third and first millennium  BC , considering the  bronze period in Lorestan. There is a unique similarity between petroglyph marks and prehistoric potteries as if all these works are done by a sole artist.





Hunting scene in Koksu petroglyphs


 South Korea[edit]






 Saudi Arabia[edit]

  • "Graffiti Rocks", about 110 km SW of Riyadh off the Mecca highway
  • Arwa, west of Riyadh
  • al Jawf, near al Jawf
  • Jubbah, Umm Samnan, north of Hail
  • Janin Cave, south of Hail
  • Yatib, south of Hail
  • Milihiya, south of Hail
  • Jebel al Lawz, north of Tabuk
  • Wadi Damm, near Tabuk
  • Wadi Abu Oud, near al Ula
  • Shuwaymis, north of Madina
  • Jebel al Manjour & Ratt, north of Madina
  • Hanakiya, north of Madina
  • Shimli
  • Bir Hima, north of Najran
  • Tathleeth, north of Najran
  • Al-Magar, in Najd






Cup and ring marked rocks in:


  • Hauensuoli, Hanko, Finland




Northern Ireland[edit]






Mammoth on the basalt stone in Sikachi-Alyan, Russia





Central and South America and the Caribbean[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 and dates from 12,000 to 9,000 years ago.[28]



 Costa Rica[edit]

 Dominican Republic[edit]



Fertility symbols, called "Ita Letra" by the local Panambi'y people, in a natural shelter in Amambay, Paraguay


 Puerto Rico[edit]

 Saint Kitts and Nevis[edit]


 Trinidad and Tobago[edit]


North America[edit]



 United States[edit]

Petroglyph on western coast of Hawaii
A color picture of some petroglyphs on a tan sandstone cliff face
Modern Hopi have interpreted the petroglyphs at Mesa Verde National Park's Petroglyph Point as depictions of the Eagle, Mountain Sheep, Parrot, Horned Toad, and Mountain Lion clans, and the Ancestral Puebloans who inhabited the mesa



See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harmanşah (2014), 5–6
  2. ^ Harmanşah (2014), 5–6; Canepa, 53
  3. ^ for example by Rawson and Sickman & Soper
  4. ^ Ancient Indians made 'rock music'. BBC News (2004-03-19). Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
  5. ^ J. Collingwood Bruce (1868; cited in Beckensall, S., Northumberland's Prehistoric Rock Carvings: A Mystery Explained. Pendulum Publications, Rothbury, Northumberland. 1983:19)
  6. ^ Morris, Ronald (1979) The Prehistoric Rock Art of Galloway and The Isle of Man, Blandford Press, ISBN 978-0-7137-0974-2.
  7. ^ [see Lewis-Williams, D. 2002. A Cosmos in Stone: Interpreting Religion and Society through Rock Art. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, Ca.]
  8. ^ Peratt, A.L. (2003). "Characteristics for the occurrence of a high-current, Z-pinch aurora as recorded in antiquity". IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science. 31 (6): 1192. doi:10.1109/TPS.2003.820956. 
  9. ^ Peratt, Anthony L.; McGovern, John; Qoyawayma, Alfred H.; Van Der Sluijs, Marinus Anthony; Peratt, Mathias G. (2007). "Characteristics for the Occurrence of a High-Current Z-Pinch Aurora as Recorded in Antiquity Part II: Directionality and Source". IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science. 35 (4): 778. doi:10.1109/TPS.2007.902630. 
  10. ^ Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
  11. ^ Parkington, J. Morris, D. & Rusch, N. 2008. Karoo rock engravings. Clanwilliam: Krakadouw Trust; Morris, D. & Beaumont, P. 2004. Archaeology in the Northern Cape: some key sites. Kimberley: McGregor Museum.
  12. ^ Khechoyan, Anna. "The Rock Art of the Mt. Aragats System | Anna Khechoyan". Retrieved 2013-08-18. 
  13. ^ Kamat, Nandkumar. "Petroglyphs on the banks of Kushvati". Prehistoric Goan Shamanism. the Navhind times. Retrieved 30 March 2011. 
  14. ^ Petroglyphs of Ladakh: The Withering Monuments.
  15. ^ Dolmen with petroglyphs found near Villupuram. (2009-09-19). Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
  16. ^ "Iran Petroglyphs – سنگ نگاره های ایران Iran Petroglyphs". 
  17. ^ Foundation, Bradshaw. "Middle East Rock Art Archive – Iran Rock Art Gallery". 
  18. ^ "Archaeologist uncovers 'the world's oldest drawings'". 12 December 2016. 
  19. ^ Iran Petroglyphs, Universal Common language (book); IRAN PETROGLYPS, IDEOGRAM SYMBOLS (book); Rock Museums Rock Arts (Iran Petroglyphs) (book); For more information : ; ; ; ;
  20. ^ a b c Nobuhiro, Yoshida (1994) The Handbook For Petrograph Fieldwork, Chou Art Publishing, ISBN 4-88639-699-2, p. 57
  21. ^ Nobuhiro, Yoshida (1994) The Handbook For Petrograph Fieldwork, Chou Art Publishing, ISBN 4-88639-699-2, p. 54
  22. ^ Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai – UNESCO World Heritage Centre. (2011-06-28). Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
  23. ^ Fitzhugh, William W. and Kortum, Richard (2012) Rock Art and Archaeology: Investigating Ritual Landscape in the Mongolian Altai. Field Report 2011. The Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  24. ^
  25. ^ "British Rock Art Blog | A Forum about Prehistoric Rock Art in the British Islands". Retrieved 2013-08-18. 
  26. ^ Photos. (2007-08-13). Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
  27. ^ "Umeå, Norrfors". Retrieved 2013-08-18. 
  28. ^ Choi, Charles. "Call this ancient rock carving 'little horny man'." Science on MSNBC. 22 Feb 2012. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  29. ^ "Settlers at La Silla". Retrieved 6 June 2017. 
  30. ^ "The Ascent of Man". Retrieved 28 December 2015. 
  31. ^ "Llamas at La Silla". ESO Picture of the Week. Retrieved 29 April 2014. 
  32. ^ a b "Ometepe Island Info – El Ceibo". Retrieved 2017-03-05. 
  33. ^ Petroglyph Provincial Park, Nanaimo, Vancouver Island BC. Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
  34. ^ Gabriola Island BC
  35. ^ Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
  36. ^ Keyser, James D. (July 1992). Indian Rock Art of the Columbia Plateau. University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0-295-97160-5. 
  37. ^ Moore, Donald W. Petroglyph Canyon Tours. Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
  38. ^ Grimes Point National Recreation Trail, Nevada BLM Archaeological Site. (2012-01-13). Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
  39. ^ Museums & Historic Sites. Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
  40. ^ "Paint Lick". Retrieved 2013-08-18. 
  41. ^ "Petroglyph National Monument (U.S. National Park Service)". 
  42. ^ Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. (2012-09-13). Retrieved on 2013-02-12.


  • Harmanşah, Ömür (ed) (2014), Of Rocks and Water: An Archaeology of Place, 2014, Oxbow Books, ISBN 1-78297-674-4, 9781782976745
  • Rawson, Jessica (ed). The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, 2007 (2nd edn), British Museum Press, ISBN 978-0-7141-2446-9
  • Sickman, Laurence, in: Sickman L. & Soper A., The Art and Architecture of China, Pelican History of Art, 3rd ed 1971, Penguin (now Yale History of Art), LOC 70-125675

Further reading[edit]

  • Beckensall, Stan and Laurie, Tim, Prehistoric Rock Art of County Durham, Swaledale and Wensleydale, County Durham Books, 1998 ISBN 1-897585-45-4
  • Beckensall, Stan, Prehistoric Rock Art in Northumberland, Tempus Publishing, 2001 ISBN 0-7524-1945-5

External links[edit]