, Mesak Settafet region of Libya.]

Petroglyphs are images created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, pecking, carving, and abrading. 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 world-wide, and are often (but not always) associated with prehistoric peoples. The word comes from the Greek words "petros" meaning "stone" and "glyphein" meaning "to carve" (it was originally coined in French as "pétroglyphe").

The term "petroglyph" should not be confused with pictograph, 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. 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).


The oldest 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). 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 "pre-writing". 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". [ [ Ancient Indians made 'rock music', BBC News Friday, 19 March, 2004] ]

Some petroglyph images probably had 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 almost look like some 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 Mr John Collingwood Bruce agreed that the carvings had "... a common origin, and indicate a symbolic meaning, representing some popular thought." [J. Collingwood Bruce (1868; cited in Beckensall, S., "Northumberland's Prehistoric Rock Carvings: A Mystery Explained". Pendulum Publications, Rothbury, Northumberland. 1983:19)] In his cataloguing of Scottish rock art, Ronald Morris summarised 104 different theories on their interpretation. [Ronald Morris, "The Prehistoric Rock Art of Galloway and The Isle of Man" (ISBN 978-0-7137-0974-2 , Blandford Press 1979] .

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 [ [see Lewis-Williams, D. 2002. A Cosmos in Stone: Interpreting Religion and Society through Rock Art. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, Ca.] ] , 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 to be "hard-wired" into the human brain; they frequently occur in visual disturbances and hallucinations brought on by drugs, migraine and other stimuli.

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 [] . 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


* Tassili n'Ajjer in Algeria
* Bidzar, Cameroon
* Bambari, Lengo and Bangassou in the south of the Central African Republic; Bwale in the west
* Niola Doa, Chad
* The Niari River valley in the Congo, 250km south west of Brazzaville
* Ogooue River Valley, Gabon
* Akakus, Libya
* Jebel Uweinat, Libya
* The Draa River valley in Morocco
* Twyfelfontein, Namibia
* Life-size giraffe carvings on Dabous Rock, Air Mountains, Niger
* Wadi Hammamat in Qift, Egypt 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


* Arnhem Land / Kakadu National Park, Northern Australia
* Murujuga, Western Australia - world heritage assessed
* Sydney Rock Engravings, New South Wales



*Gobustan State Reserve


* Eight sites in Hong Kong: on Tung Lung Island, Kau Sai Chau, Po Toi Island, Cheung Chau, Shek Pik on Lantau Island, Wong Chuk Hang and Big Wave Bay on Hong Kong Island, Lung Ha Wan in Sai Kung
* Yin Mountains in Inner Mongolia


* Edakkal Caves


* Chumysh River basin,
* Tamgaly on the Ili River
* Tamgaly - a World Heritage Site


* Bangudae Petroglyphs,


* Several sites, mostly in the Tien Shan mountains; Cholpon-Ata, the Talas valley, Siymaliytash (Saimaluu-Tash), and on the rock outcrop called Suleiman's Throne in Osh in the Fergana valley


* Rock art and petroglyphs in Northern Areas,


* Angono Petroglyphs of Rizal, Philippines


* Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Petroglyphs
* Hawaii (particularly the Big Island).

outh America

* Cumbe Mayo, Peru
* Corantijn Basin, Suriname

North America

* Arches National Park, Utah
* Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
* Death Valley National Park, California
* Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado and Utah
* Columbia Hills State Park, Washington [ cite book
last = Keyser
first = James D.
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Indian Rock Art of the Columbia Plateau
publisher = University of Washington Press
date = July 1992
location =
pages = 139pp.
url =
doi =
id = ISBN 978-0295971605
* The Cove Palisades State Park, Oregon
* Grimes Point, Nevada []
* Jeffers Petroglyphs, Minnesota
* Kanopolis State Park, Kansas
* Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia
* La Proveedora, Caborca, Mexico
* Lava Beds National Monument, Tule Lake, California
* Legend Rock Petroglyph Site, Thermopolis, Wyoming
* Leo Petroglyph, Leo, Ohio []
* Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument, Utah
* Maturango Canyon, Coso Range, Northern Mojave, California []
* Mina, Nuevo Leon, Mexico
* Olympic National Park, Washington
* Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas
* Petrified Forest National Park
* Petroglyph National Monument
* Petroglyphs Provincial Park, north of Peterborough, Ontario
* Petroglyph Provincial Park, Nanaimo, British Columbia []
* Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park, Michigan
* Sedona, Arizona
* Seminole Canyon, Texas
* Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada
* Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada
* Rochester Rock Art Panel, Utah
* Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
* South Mountain Park, Arizona
* St John, USVI
* Stuart Lake, British Columbia
* Three Rivers Petroglyphs, New Mexico []
* West Virginia glyphs
* Writing Rock State Historical Site, North Dakota
* Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, East of Milk River, Alberta
* White Tank Mountain Regional Park, Waddell, Arizona

Puerto Rico

* La Piedra Escrita (The Written Rock) - Jayuya, Puerto Rico

Dominican Republic

* Cueva de las Maravillas
* Los 3 Ojos



* Cup and ring marked rocks in Northumberland, County Durham, North Yorkshire, and Gardom's Edge (Derbyshire), England


* Mercantour National Park, France


* Museum of Ayrshire Country Life and Costume, North Ayrshire


* Newgrange, Ireland


* Rock Drawings in Valcamonica - World Heritage Site, Italy (biggest European site, over 350,000)
* Bagnolo stele, Valcamonica, Italy


* Rock carvings at Alta, World Heritage Site (1985)
* Rock carvings in Central Norway
* Rock carvings at Møllerstufossen
* Rock carvings at Tennes


* Côa Valley Paleolithic Art, Portugal


* Petróglifos de Galicia


* Petroglyph Park near Petrozavodsk-Lake Onega, Russia
* Tomskaya Pisanitsa
* Kanozero Petroglyphs


* Tanumshede (Bohuslän); World Heritage Site (1994)
* Himmelstalund (by Norrköping in Östergötland)
* Enköping (Uppland)
* Southwest Skåne (Götaland)
* Alvhem (Västra Götaland)
* Torhamn (Blekinge)
* Nämforsen (Ångermanland)
* Häljesta (Västmanland)
* Slagsta (Södermanland)
* Glösa (Jämtland)
* The King's Grave


*Kars - Kagizman Cave
*Kars - Camuslu Village
*Erzurum - Cunni Cave
*Ordu - Esatli
*Hakkari - Gevaruk Walley


* Kamyana Mohyla, Ukraine
* Stone stelae of the Ukraine

Middle East

* Wadi Rum, Jordan
* Wadi Faynan, Jordan
* "Graffiti Rocks", about 110 km SW of Riyadh off the Mecca highway


ee also

* Cave painting
* Rock art
* Cup and ring mark
* Geoglyph
* History of communication
* Inukshuk
* Megalithic art
* Parietal art
* Petrosomatoglyph
* Petroform
* Runestone and image stone
* Stela
* Water glyphs

Further reading

*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

* [ British Rock Art Collection (BRAC)]
* [ Dampier petroglyphs]
* [ Costa Rican city of Guayabo petroglyphs]
* [ Reports of concerns for Australia's heritage]
* [ Petroglyph Provincial Park Official Website]
* [ Northumberland Rock Art]
* [ Debunking of Ogam theory about West Virginia petroglyphs]
* [ A rival interpretation of the West Virginia petroglyphs]
* [ Kyrgyz petroglyphs]
* [ Cholpon-Ata petroglyphs, Kyrgyzstan]
* [ Sarmish-Say petroglyphs]
* [ Giraffe carvings on Dabous Rock, Air Mountains, Niger]
* [ Rock engraving sites in Central Africa]
* [ Shamanism and rock art among the San people of the Kalahari]
* [ Rock Art Research Institute website (Witwatersrand)]
* [ Rock Art Studies: A Bibliographic Database] Bancroft Library's 14000+ citations to rock art literature.
* [ Bradshaw Foundation]
* [ Latin American rock art articles and rock art researchers directory]
* [ Dolmenes y megalitos del mundo]
* [ Menhires del mundo]
* [ Petroglyphs in Peru]
* [ La Silla Petroglyphs] (click on Pictures and the Chile 2002/2003, here you find also a map)

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Petroglyph — bezeichnet: prähistorische in Stein geritzte bildliche und grafische Darstellungen, siehe Petroglyphen den Computerspiele Entwickler Petroglyph Games Diese Seite ist eine Begriffsklärung zur Unterscheidung mehrerer mit …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • petroglyph — 1870, from Fr. pétroglyphe, from Gk. petra rock + glyphe carving …   Etymology dictionary

  • petroglyph — [pe′trō glif΄] n. [Fr pétroglyphe < Gr petra, rock + glyphē, carving: see GLYPH] a rock carving, esp. a prehistoric one petroglyphic adj …   English World dictionary

  • petroglyph — noun Etymology: French pétroglyphe, from pétr petr + glyphe (as in hiéroglyphe hieroglyph) Date: 1870 a carving or inscription on a rock …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • petroglyph — petroglyphic, adj. petroglyphy /pi trog leuh fee/, n. /pe treuh glif /, n. a drawing or carving on rock, made by a member of a prehistoric people. Also called petrograph. [1865 70; < F pétroglyphe. See PETRO 1, GLYPH] * * * …   Universalium

  • petroglyph — noun A rock carving, especially one made in prehistoric times …   Wiktionary

  • Petroglyph — Steinritzung …   Universal-Lexikon

  • petroglyph — petrÉ™glɪf n. drawing or carving on a rock (especially such as those made by ethnic peoples or peoples in prehistoric times) …   English contemporary dictionary

  • petroglyph —    An image engraved or drawn on rock, especially one made by prehistoric people …   Glossary of Art Terms

  • petroglyph — [ pɛtrə(ʊ)glɪf] noun a rock carving. Origin C19: from petro + Gk glyphē carving …   English new terms dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.