Fremont Petroglyph, in Dinosaur National Monument, attributed to Classic Vernal Style, Fremont archaeological culture, eastern Utah, United States
Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara, Sri Lanka, where the remains of two columns to support the structure that originally enclosed it is visible
Nanabozho pictograph, Mazinaw Rock, Bon Echo Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

In archaeology, rock art is human-made markings placed on natural surfaces, typically vertical stone surfaces. A high proportion of surviving historic and prehistoric rock art is found in caves or partly enclosed rock shelters; this type also may be called cave art or parietal art. A global phenomenon, rock art is found in many culturally diverse regions of the world. It has been produced in many contexts throughout human history. In terms of technique, the four main groups are:

The oldest known rock art dates from the Upper Palaeolithic period, having been found in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa. Anthropologists studying these artworks believe that they likely had magico-religious significance.

The archaeological sub-discipline of rock art studies first developed in the late-19th century among Francophone scholars studying the rock art of the Upper Palaeolithic found in the cave systems of parts of Western Europe. Rock art continues to be of importance to indigenous peoples in various parts of the world, who view them as both sacred items and significant components of their cultural heritage.[1] Such archaeological sites may become significant sources of cultural tourism and have been used in popular culture for their aesthetic qualities.[2]

Buddhist stone carvings at Ili River, Kazakhstan


The term rock art appears in the published literature as early as the 1940s.[3][4] It has also been described as "rock carvings",[5] "rock drawings",[6] "rock engravings",[7] "rock inscriptions",[8] "rock paintings",[9] "rock pictures",[10] "rock records",[11] and "rock sculptures".[12][13]


Parietal art is a term for art in caves; this definition usually extended to art in rock shelters under cliff overhangs. Popularly, it is called "cave art", and is a subset of the wider term, rock art. It is mostly on rock walls, but may be on ceilings and floors. A wide variety of techniques have been used in its creation. The term usually is applied only to prehistoric art, but it may be used for art of any date.[14] Sheltered parietal art has had a far better chance of surviving for very long periods, and what now survives may represent only a very small proportion of what was created.[15]

Both parietal and cave art refer to cave paintings, drawings, etchings, carvings, and pecked artwork on the interior of caves and rock shelters. Generally, these either are engraved (essentially meaning scratched) or painted, or, they are created using a combination of the two techniques.[16] Parietal art is found very widely throughout the world, and in many places new examples are being discovered.

The defining characteristic of rock art is that it is placed on natural rock surfaces; in this way, it is distinct from artworks placed on constructed walls or free-standing sculpture.[17] 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.[17] Rock art is a global phenomenon, being found in many different regions of the world.[1] There are various forms of rock art. Some archaeologists also consider pits and grooves in the rock known as cupules, or cups or rings, as a form of rock art.[17]

Although there are exceptions, the majority of rock art whose creation was recorded by ethnographers had been produced during rituals.[17] As such, the study of rock art is a component of the archaeology of religion.[18]

Rock art serves multiple purposes in the contemporary world. In several regions, it remains spiritually important to indigenous peoples, who view it as a significant component of their cultural heritage.[1] It also serves as an important source of cultural tourism, and hence as economic revenue in certain parts of the world. As such, images taken from cave art have appeared on memorabilia and other artifacts sold as a part of the tourist industry.[2]


Aboriginal rock painting of Mimi spirits in the Anbangbang gallery at Nourlangie Rock in Kakadu National Park.


Main article: Cave painting

In most climates, only paintings in sheltered sites, in particular caves, have survived for any length of time. Therefore, these are usually called "cave paintings", although many do survive in "rock-shelters" or cliff-faces under an overhang. In prehistoric times, these were often popular places for various human purposes, providing some shelter from the weather, as well as light. There may have been many more paintings in more exposed sites, that are now lost. Pictographs are paintings or drawings that have been placed onto the rock face. Such artworks have typically been made with mineral earths and other natural compounds found across much of the world. The predominantly used colours are red, black and white. Red paint is usually attained through the use of ground ochre, while black paint is typically composed of charcoal, or sometimes from minerals such as manganese. White paint is usually created from natural chalk, kaolinite clay or diatomaceous earth.[19] Once the pigments had been obtained, they would be ground and mixed with a liquid, such as water, blood, urine, or egg yolk, and then applied to the stone as paint using a brush, fingers, or a stamp. Alternately, the pigment could have been applied on dry, such as with a stick of charcoal.[20] In some societies, the paint itself has symbolic and religious meaning; for instance, among hunter-gatherer groups in California, paint was only allowed to be traded by the group shamans, while in other parts of North America, the word for "paint" was the same as the word for "supernatural spirit".[21]

One common form of pictograph, found in many, although not all rock-art producing cultures, is the hand print. There are three forms of this; the first involves covering the hand in wet paint and then applying it to the rock. The second involves a design being painted onto the hand, which is then in turn added to the surface. The third involves the hand first being placed against the panel, with dry paint then being blown onto it through a tube, in a process that is akin to air-brush or spray-painting. The resulting image is a negative print of the hand, and is sometimes described as a "stencil" in Australian archaeology.[22] Miniature stencilled art has been found at two locations in Australia and one in Indonesia.


Main article: Petroglyph

Bidzar Petroglyphs in Cameroon

Petroglyphs are engravings or carvings into rock which is left in situ. They can be created with a range of scratching, engraving or carving techniques, often with the use of a hard hammerstone, which is battered against the stone surface. In certain societies, the choice of hammerstone itself has religious significance.[23] In other instances, the rock art is pecked out through indirect percussion, as a second rock is used like a chisel between the hammerstone and the panel.[23] A third, rarer form of engraving rock art was through incision, or scratching, into the surface of the stone with a lithic flake or metal blade. The motifs produced using this technique are fine-lined and often difficult to see.[24]

Rock reliefs

Main article: Rock relief

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.[25] 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.[26] 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.[27] 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 stelae or carved orthostats.

Earth figures

Further information: Geoglyphs

See also: Land art

Earth figures are large designs and motifs that are created on the stone ground surface. They can be classified through their method of manufacture.[28] Intaglios are created by scraping away the desert pavements (pebbles covering the ground) to reveal a negative image on the bedrock below. The best known example of such intaglio rock art is the Nazca Lines of Peru.[28] In contrast, geoglyphs are positive images, which are created by piling up rocks on the ground surface to resulting in a visible motif or design.[28]

Motifs and panels

Traditionally, individual markings are called motifs and groups of motifs are known as panels. Sequences of panels are treated as archaeological sites. This method of classifying rock art however has become less popular as the structure imposed is unlikely to have had any relevance to the art's creators. Even the word 'art' carries with it many modern prejudices about the purpose of the features.[citation needed]

Rock art can be found across a wide geographical and temporal spread of cultures perhaps to mark territory, to record historical events or stories or to help enact rituals. Some art seems to depict real events whilst many other examples are apparently entirely abstract.[citation needed]

Prehistoric rock depictions were not purely descriptive. Each motif and design had a "deep significance" that is not always understandable to modern scholars.[29]

Interpretation and use

Religious interpretations

In many instances, the creation of rock art was itself a ritual act.[24]

Regional variations


Main article: Rock art of Europe

In the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe, rock art was produced inside cave systems by the hunter-gatherer peoples who inhabited the continent. The oldest known example is the Chauvet Cave in France, although others have been located, including Lascaux in France, Alta Mira in Spain and Creswell Crags in Britain and Grotta del Genovese in Sicily.

Balma dei Cervi post-palaeolithic rock paintings (Italian western Alps): anthropomorphic figures and dottings (DStretch enhanced)

The late prehistoric rock art of Europe has been divided into three regions by archaeologists. In Atlantic Europe, the coastal seaboard on the west of the continent, which stretches from Iberia up through France and encompasses the British Isles, a variety of different rock arts were produced from the Neolithic through to the Late Bronze Age. A second area of the continent to contain a significant rock art tradition was that of Alpine Europe, with the majority of artworks being clustered in the southern slopes of the mountainous region, in what is now south-eastern France and northern Italy.

A moose in the rock paintings of Saraakallio in Laukaa, Finland


Figure of a woman at the Tassili n'Ajjer mountain range
Long-horned cattle and other rock art in the Laas Geel complex
Rock paintings from the Western Cape
Chongoni Rock Art Area, Malawi

North Africa

Western Africa

East Africa

Rock art in the Adi Alauti cave, Eritrea

Southern Africa

Cave paintings are found in most parts of Southern Africa that have rock overhangs with smooth surfaces. Among these sites are the cave sandstone of Natal, Orange Free State and North-Eastern Cape, the granite and Waterberg sandstone of the Northern Transvaal, and the Table Mountain sandstone of the Southern and Western Cape.[36]

The Americas

Native American rock painting close to Douglas, Wyoming, USA. One possible interpretation of this painting is: On the left side a group of United States Army soldiers with different insignia and on the right side Native Americans are shown

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.[40] The most important site is Serra da Capivara National Park at Piauí state. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the largest collection in the American continent and one of the most studied.

A site including eight miles of paintings or pictographs that is under study in Colombia, South America at Serranía de la Lindosa was revealed in November 2020.[41] Their age is suggested as being 12,500 years old (c. 10,480 B.C.) by the anthropologists working on the site because of extinct fauna depicted.

Rock paintings or pictographs are located in many areas across Canada. There are over 400 sites attributed to the Ojibway from northern Saskatchewan to the Ottawa River.[42]

However, cave art is not the only type of rock art. While cave art provides the two-dimensional view on a rocky surface, figurines made of a rock material can provide a three-dimensional view that gives insight on indigenous views towards their visual arts. Many sites along and off the California coastline, such as the Channel Islands and Malibu, have both realistic and abstract styles of zoomorphic effigy figurines.[46] From archaeological studies at these sites, archaeologists and other researchers discovered many of these figurines and performed a composition analysis, which most of these figurines are made of steatite but there are still made of other materials.[47][48]

As a result from these archaeological studies, these figures provided context about spheres of interaction between tribal groups, demonstrate economical significance, and possibly hold a ritual function as well.[46][47][48] Under one study by archaeologists Richard T Fitzgerald and Christopher Corey, they dated the earliest figurines to be around the Middle Holocene, suggesting two socioeconomic interactive spheres (one in the northern and one in the southern Channel Islands) and linguistic similarities between Takic-speaking Gabrileno and Chumash neighbors.[47] These figurines share similar styles between these tribes, providing a history of interactive contact.


Little Lake is a complex of rock art located in a specific point in time and space (in Rose Valley, Inyo County). Rose Valley is located in the boundaries of the cultural Great Basin and the territory of the Timbisha Shoshone. This site is important to understanding the symbolism and value of North American rock art because it is one of the largest collections of rock art unrelated to the Coso (an indigenous tribe/people of the Mojave Desert). Its importance to territorial and anthropological studies helps many understand the in-depth descriptions and stylistic analyses of large rock art concentrations, which are valued by archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, and even art enthusiasts. Referring back to these sites help social scientists understand and record the values that were important to the creators; it shows economic values or settlement patterns that were once a daily part of life. As a result, it is crucial to focus on the variable resources to understand how cultures were abiding with their environment. However, the rock art related sites at Little Rock can't be directly dated or analyzed.[45]


Bhimbetka rock painting of India, World Heritage Site.
'Great King' neolithic paintings above Malipo in Wenshan Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China. Thought to be over 4000 years old.
Petroglyphs in Gobustan, Azerbaijan, dating back to 10,000 BC.
Rock art in Balichakra near Yadgir town in Karnataka, India

Central Asia

East Asia

Further information: Gongshi, Suseok, and Suiseki

Southeast Asia

Further information: Austronesian peoples § Rock art

South Asia

Western Asia



Further information: Indigenous Australian art § Rock art

Australian Indigenous art represents the oldest unbroken tradition of art in the world. There are more than 100,000 recorded rock art sites in Australia.[64]

The oldest firmly dated rock-art painting in Australia is a charcoal drawing on a rock fragment found during the excavation of the Nawarla Gabarnmang rock shelter in south western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Dated at 28,000 years, it is one of the oldest known pieces of rock art on Earth with a confirmed date. Nawarla Gabarnmang has one of the most extensive collections of rock art in the world and predates both Lascaux and Chauvet cave art - the earliest known art in Europe - by at least 10,000 years.[65][66]

In 2008 rock art depicting what is thought to be a Thylacoleo was discovered[by whom?] on the north-western coast of the Kimberley.[67] As the Thylacoleo is believed to have become extinct 45000–46000 years ago (Roberts et al. 2001) (Gillespie 2004), this suggests a similar age for the associated Gwion Gwion rock paintings. Archaeologist Kim Akerman however believes that the megafauna may have persisted later in refugia (wetter areas of the continent) as suggested by Wells (1985: 228) and has suggested a much younger age for the paintings.[67] Pigments from the Gwion Gwion of the Kimberley are so old they have become part of the rock itself, making carbon dating impossible. Some experts suggest that these paintings are in the vicinity of 50,000 years old and may even pre-date Aboriginal settlement.[68][69]

Gwion Gwion rock paintings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia

Miniature rock art of the stencilled variety at a rock shelter known as Yilbilinji, in the Limmen National Park in the Northern Territory, is one of only three known examples of such art. Usually stencilled art is life-size, using body parts as the stencil, but the 17 images of designs of human figures, boomerangs, animals such as crabs and long-necked turtles, wavy lines and geometric shapes are very rare. Found in 2017 by archaeologists, the only other recorded examples are at Nielson's Creek in New South Wales and at Kisar Island in Indonesia. It is thought that the designs may have been created by stencils fashioned out of beeswax.[70][71][72]

William Westall (1803) Chasm Island, native cave painting, 1803, watercolour

The first European discovery of aboriginal rock paintings took place on 14 January 1803.[82] While on a surveying expedition along the shores and islands of the Gulf of Carpentaria, British navigator and explorer Matthew Flinders made landfall on rugged Chasm Island off Groote Eylandt.

Within the island's rock shelters, Flinders discovered an array of painted and stenciled patterns. To record these images, he enlisted the ship's artist, William Westall.[83] Westall's two watercolour sketches are the earliest known documentation of Australian rock art. In his journal, Flinders not only detailed the location and the artworks but also authored the inaugural site report:

In the deep sides of the chasms were deep holes or caverns undermining the cliffs; upon the walls of which I found rude drawings, made with charcoal and something like red paint upon the white ground of the rock. These drawings represented porpoises, turtle, kanguroos [sic], and a human hand; and Mr. Westall, who went afterwards to see them, found the representation of a kanguroo [sic], with a file of thirty-two persons following after it. The third person of the band was twice the height of the others, and held in his hand something resembling the whaddie, or wooden sword of the natives of Port Jackson; and was probably intended to represent a chief. They could not, as with us, indicate superiority by clothing or ornament, since they wore none of any kind; and therefore, with the addition of a weapon, similar to the ancients, they seem to have made superiority of person the principal emblem of superior power, of which, indeed, power is usually a consequence in the very early stages of society.[48]

New Zealand

In New Zealand, North Otago and South Canterbury have a rich range of early Māori rock art.[84]


The archaeological sub-discipline devoted to the investigation of rock art is known as "rock art studies". Rock art specialist David S. Whitley noted that research in this area required an "integrated effort" that brings together archaeological theory, method, fieldwork, analytical techniques and interpretation.[86]


Although French archaeologists had undertaken much research into rock art, Anglophone archaeology had largely neglected the subject for decades.[87]

The discipline of rock art studies witnessed what Whitley called a "revolution" during the 1980s and 1990s, as increasing numbers of archaeologists in the Anglophone world and Latin America turned their attention to the subject.[88] In doing so, they recognised that rock art could be used to understand symbolic and religious systems, gender relations, cultural boundaries, cultural change and the origins of art and belief.[1] One of the most significant figures in this movement was the South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, who published his studies of San rock art from southern Africa, in which he combined ethnographic data to reveal the original purpose of the artworks. Lewis-Williams would come to be praised for elevating rock art studies to a "theoretically sophisticated research domain" by Whitley.[89] However, the study of rock art worldwide is marked by considerable differences of opinion with respect to the appropriateness of various methods and the most relevant and defensible theoretical framework.

International databases and archives

The UNESCO World Rock Art Archive Working Group met in 2011 to discuss the base model for a World Rock Art Archive.[90] While no official output has been generated to date, various projects around the world — such as The Global Rock Art Database — are looking at making rock art heritage information more accessible and more visible to assist with rock art awareness, conservation and preservation issues.[91][92]

See also


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Further reading