Amazing Petroglyph--image drawn or painted on a rock face

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).

Petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock near Canyonlands National Park, south of Moab, south eastern Utah, USA

Rock carving known as "Meerkatze" (named by archaeologist Leo Frobenius), rampant lionesses in Wadi Methkandoush, Mesak Settafet region of Libya.


A petroglyph of a caravan of bighorn sheep near Moab, Utah, USA; a common theme in glyphs from the desert southwest

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.

Composite image of petroglyphs from Scandinavia (Häljesta, Västmanland in Sweden). Nordic Bronze Age. The glyphs have been painted to make them more visible.


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". [1]

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." [2] In his cataloguing of Scottish rock art, Ronald Morris summarised 104 different theories on their interpretation. [3].

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[4], 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 [1]. 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

A petroglyph of a caravan of bighorn sheep near Moab, Utah, USA; a common theme in glyphs from the desert southwest


Photo of Cheung Chau Rock Carving



Buddhist stone carvings at Ili River, Kazakhstan


Petroglyphs at Edakkal Caves in Wayanad, Kerala. They date back to about 4000 BC.


Petroglyphs on a rock wall found in the Sierra Madre mountain range, Rizal, Philippines


Petroglyph on western coast of Hawaii

Petroglyphs at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Petroglyphs at Orongo, Rapa Nui (Easter Island). A Makemake at the base and two birdmen higher up

North America

 Petroglyphs on a Bishop Tuff tableland, eastern California, USA

Southern Utah, USA
Southern Utah, USA

Arches National Park

Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Arizona, USA

Columbia River Gorge, Washington, USA

Upside-down man in Western Colorado, USA

Rochester Rock Art Panel in the San Rafael Swell in Utah, USA

Outside Parras, Coahuila, Mexico


Petroglyph from Foppe of Nadro, Val Camonica, Italy
Duel in Foppe of Nadro, Val Camonica, Italy

Running Priest in Capo di Ponte, Val Camonica, Italy

Engravers from Val Camonica, Italy

Rock Carving in Tanum, Sweden

Carving "The Shoemaker", Brastad, Sweden

Petroglyph in Roque Bentayga, Gran Canaria (Canary Islands).

Petroglyph at Dalgarven Mill, Ayrshire, Scotland.

Subscribe to receive free email updates: