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Rock art in Iran, Teimareh region
Rock carving known as Meerkatze (named by archaeologist Leo Frobenius), rampant lionesses in Wadi Mathendous, 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.
Petroglyphs of the archaeological site of Las Labradas, situated on the coast of the municipality of San Ignacio (Mexican state of Sinaloa)

A petroglyph is an image 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, estimated to be 20,000 years old are classified as protected monuments and have been added to the tentative list of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. Petroglyphs are found worldwide, and are often associated with prehistoric peoples. The word comes from the Greek prefix petro-, from πέτρα petra meaning "stone", and γλύφω glýphō meaning "carve", and was originally coined in French as pétroglyphe.

In scholarly texts, a petroglyph is a rock engraving, whereas a petrograph (or pictograph) is a rock painting.[1][2] In common usage, the words are sometimes used interchangeably.[3][4] 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. Inuksuit are not petroglyphs, but human-made rock forms found in Arctic regions.


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 and Great Basin

Petroglyphs have been found in all parts of the globe except Antarctica, with highest concentrations in parts of Africa, Scandinavia and Siberia, many examples of petroglyphs found globally are dated to approximately the Neolithic and late Upper Paleolithic boundary (roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago).

Around 7,000 to 9,000 years ago, following the introduction of a number of precursors of writing systems, the existence and creation of petroglyphs began to suffer and tail off, with different forms of art, such as pictographs and ideograms, taking their place. However, petroglyphs continued to be created and remained somewhat common, with various cultures continuing to use them for differing lengths of time, including cultures who continued to create them until contact with Western culture was made in the 19th and 20th centuries.[citation needed]


Many hypotheses exist as to the purpose of petroglyphs, depending on their location, age, and subject matter. Some petroglyph images most likely held a deep cultural and religious significance for the societies that created them. Many petroglyphs are thought to represent a type of symbolic or ritualistic language or communication style that remains not fully understood. Others, such as geocontourglyphs, more clearly depict or represent a landform or the surrounding terrain, such as rivers and other geographic features.[citation needed]

Some petroglyph maps, depicting trails, as well as containing symbols communicating the time and distances travelled along those trails, exist; other petroglyph maps act as astronomical markers. As well as holding geographic and astronomical importance, other petroglyphs may also have been a by-product of various rituals: sites in India, for example, have seen some petroglyphs identified as musical instruments or "rock gongs".[5]

Some petroglyphs likely formed types of symbolic communication, such as types of proto-writing.[6] Later glyphs from the Nordic Bronze Age in Scandinavia seem to refer to some form of territorial boundary between tribes, in addition to holding possible religious meanings. Petroglyph styles have been recognised as having local or regional "dialects" from similar or neighboring peoples. Siberian inscriptions loosely resemble an early form of runes, although no direct relationship has been established.

Petroglyphs from different continents show similarities. While people would be inspired by their direct 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 presented 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."[7] In his cataloguing of Scottish rock art, Ronald Morris summarized 104 different theories on their interpretation.[8]

Other theories suggest that petroglyphs were carved by spiritual leaders, such as shamans, in an altered state of consciousness,[9] 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 hardwired into the human brain. They frequently occur in visual disturbances and hallucinations brought on by drugs, migraine, and other stimuli.

The Rock Art Research Institute (RARI) of the University of the Witwatersrand studies present-day links between religion and rock art among the San people of the Kalahari Desert.[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 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.[11]

List of petroglyph sites


A petroglyph in Bidzar, Cameroon



Central African Republic


Republic of the Congo






Lion Plate at Twyfelfontein in Namibia (2014)



South Africa





Petroglyphs at Ughtasar, Armenia



See also: Cliff inscriptions


Hong Kong

Eight sites in Hong Kong:


Petroglyphs in Ladakh, India

Kethaiyurumpu, Tamil Nadu. Situated 28 km north west of Dindigal, Tamil Nadu nearby Idaiyakottai and six km south west of Oddanchartam has revealed several petroglyphs mostly represent abstract symbols on two rocks, which looks like a temporary rock shelter were noticed adjacent to a Murugan temple which is in ruins on top of the Kothaiyurumbu hill.


Further information: Rock art in Iran

Map of petroglyphs and pictographs of Iran

During recent years a large number of rock carvings has been identified in different parts of Iran. The vast majority depict the ibex.[30][31] Rock drawings were found in December 2016 near Golpayegan, Iran, which may be the oldest drawings discovered, with one cluster possibly 40,000 years old. Accurate estimations were unavailable due to US sanctions.[32]

Petroglyphs are the most ancient works of art left by humankind that 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 40,000 and the oldest petroglyph discovered belongs to Timareh dating back to 40,800 years ago.

Iran provides 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.[33][31][34]





Hunting scene in Koksu petroglyphs


South Korea







Saudi Arabia











Northern Ireland


See also: List of rock carvings in Norway




Millenarian rock carvings, Laxe dos carballos at Campo Lameiro, this detail depicts a deer hit by several spears



Petroglyph Park near PetrozavodskLake Onega, Russia
Mammoth on the basalt stone in Sikachi-Alyan, Russia
White Sea petroglyphs, Republic of Karelia, Russia





Central and South America and the Caribbean




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.[43]



Costa Rica

Dominican Republic





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


Saint Kitts and Nevis


Trinidad and Tobago


North America



Near Parras, Coahuila

United States

For a more comprehensive list, see List of petroglyphs in the United States.

Petroglyph on western coast of Hawaii
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
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


  1. ^ Wieschhoff, Heinrich Albert (1945). Africa. University of Pennsylvania Press. Most noteworthy among the relics of Africa's early periods are the rock-paintings (petrographs) and rock-engravings (petroglyphs) which have been discovered in many parts of the continent.
  2. ^ T. Douglas Price (2012). Europe Before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. Oxford University Press. p. 116. This art falls into two categories, depending on how it is made: petroglyphs are carved into rock, and pictographs are painted on the rock.
  3. ^ "petrograph". Merriam-Webster. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 26 November 2020.
  4. ^ Webster's Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. Random House. 2001. p. 1449. ISBN 0-681-31723-X.
  5. ^ Ancient Indians made 'rock music'. BBC News (2004-03-19). Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
  6. ^ Houston, Stephen D. (1 October 2004). "The Archaeology of Communication Technologies". Annual Review of Anthropology. 33 (1): 223–250. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143724. ISSN 0084-6570.
  7. ^ J. Collingwood Bruce (1868; cited in Beckensall, S., Northumberland's Prehistoric Rock Carvings: A Mystery Explained. Pendulum Publications, Rothbury, Northumberland. 1983:19)
  8. ^ Morris, Ronald (1979) The Prehistoric Rock Art of Galloway and The Isle of Man, Blandford Press, ISBN 978-0-7137-0974-2.
  9. ^ [See: D. Lewis-Williams, A Cosmos in Stone: Interpreting Religion and Society through Rock Art (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2002).]
  10. ^ Archived 2017-07-30 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on 2013-02-12.
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  12. ^ Huyge, Dirk; Vandenberghe, Dimitri A.G.; De Dapper, Morgan; Mees, Florias; Claes, Wouter; Darnell, John C. (21 November 2011). "First evidence of Pleistocene rock art in North Africa: securing the age of the Qurta petroglyphs (Egypt) through OSL dating". Antiquity. 85 (330): 1184–1193. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00061998. S2CID 130471822. Retrieved 30 May 2023.
  13. ^ "Egypt: The Aurochs of Qurta". World Archaeology (53). 28 May 2012. Retrieved 30 May 2023.
  14. ^ Gonzalo de Salazar,"The Chariots of Sahara", Adoranten, Tanum: Scandinavian Society for Prehistoric Art, 2000.
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  16. ^ Ben Nasr, Jaafar (June 2015). "The Rock Art of Tunisia When, Why and to whom?". Expression (8).
  17. ^ Yahia-Acheche, Sophie (2 June 2013). "Ousselat (Jebel — ; Tunisie) : Préhistoire et art rupestre". Encyclopédie berbère (in French) (36): 5986–5993. doi:10.4000/encyclopedieberbere.2870. ISSN 1015-7344.
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  22. ^ Khechoyan, Anna (January 2007). "The Rock Art of the Mt. Aragats System | Anna Khechoyan". Xxii International Valcamonica Symposium Rock Art in the Frame of the Cultural Heritage of Humankind l'Arte Rupestre Nel Quadro del Patrimonio Culturale dell'umanità,Centro Congressi - Darfo Boario Terme (Bs) Italy 18th - 24th May. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
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Further reading