Rock Art of Ancient Peoples

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Entrance to Petroglyphs Provincial Park.Checking out the information board before entering the trails of Petroglyphs Provincial Park.Sign directing us to Petroglyphs Provincial Park.Fun at the Learning Centre of Petroglyphs Provincial Park.A metal rendering of one of the glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
Entrance to Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
Entrance to Petroglyphs Provincial Park. | Source
Checking out the information board before entering the trails of Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
Checking out the information board before entering the trails of Petroglyphs Provincial Park. | Source
Sign directing us to Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
Sign directing us to Petroglyphs Provincial Park. | Source
Fun at the Learning Centre of Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
Fun at the Learning Centre of Petroglyphs Provincial Park. | Source
A metal rendering of one of the glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
A metal rendering of one of the glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park. | Source

Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Woodview, Ontario Canada

Just north of Peterborough, Ontario Canada, not too far from our home is Petroglyphs Provincial Park to which I recently took my youngest son and his friend. This park is an amazing treasure of ancient rock art. The boys loved all aspects of the park from the interpretive center to the gift shop. Even though the petroglyphs themselves are protected from damaging hands and bodies probing and climbing on them, they were an amazing site to behold. We were disappointed that pictures were not allowed. The local aboriginal populations consider them spiritual art and it is considered a form of desecration to take photos of them.

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Enlargements of many of the glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.Enlargements of glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.Enlargements of glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.Enlargements of glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
Enlargements of many of the glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
Enlargements of many of the glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park. | Source
Enlargements of glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
Enlargements of glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park. | Source
Enlargements of glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
Enlargements of glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park. | Source
Enlargements of glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
Enlargements of glyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park. | Source

These petroglyphs were carved on crystalline limestone which is a form of white marble. Gneiss hammer stones were used to create them. There is some debate as to the identity of the artists as well as the age of the petroglyphs of this park. Some historians believe they were created by Algonkian or Iroquoian speaking people about 900 to 1100 years ago. Other archaeologists, however, date this petroglyph site closer to 2000 years old. Both groups surmised to be the artists were nomadic people of the Canadian Shield. Whichever nation carved these glyphs, the complexity of these carvings suggests the site was visited repeatedly over a long period of time. It is widely believed that they represent a visual record of the artists' culture and beliefs as well as their relationship to the spirit world.

Development Of Rock Art

Rock art developed long before humans could write out their ideas. Thoughts and feelings were recorded on stone. Life events and the things they saw around them were expressed in beautiful art work on rock faces and in caves. Today's graffiti artists can trace their art form directly to these ancient artists. There are two forms of rock art: petroglyphs and pictographs. Both are beautiful art forms practiced by ancient peoples but each has its own characteristics and typical tools of the craft.

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Cast of petroglyphs in Learning Centre, Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Woodview, Ontario, CanadaHawaiin petroglyph from the Big Island.
Cast of petroglyphs in Learning Centre, Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Woodview, Ontario, Canada
Cast of petroglyphs in Learning Centre, Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Woodview, Ontario, Canada | Source
Hawaiin petroglyph from the Big Island.
Hawaiin petroglyph from the Big Island. | Source

Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs are a form of prehistoric rock art representing carving sites. They are found in many cultures and have been seen in various time periods of ancient history as well as some more recent historical examples.

  • They are distinguished by visible indentations in the rock.
  • Or, they are created when the weathered surface or 'desert varnish' on the surface of the rock is scraped away.

In order to create petroglyphs, artists perform one or more of the following techniques to the rock surface— typically of a cliff wall, boulder or flat bedrock surface— using stone or metal tools.

  • etching
  • incising
  • rubbing
  • pounding
  • grounding

Petroglyph Sites Around the World

show route and directions
A markerPetroglyphs Provincial Park, Woodview, ON -
Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Woodview, ON K0L 3E0, Canada
[get directions]

Deep within a forest northeast of Peterborough is the largest known concentration of Aboriginal rock carvings in Canada.

B markerDinosaur National Monument -
Dinosaur National Monument, E Hwy 40, Vernal, UT CO 81610-9, USA
[get directions]

Dinosaur National Monument has several places where you can view rock art, most of which was created by the Fremont culture between 700 an 1400 years

C markerArches National Park, Utah -
Arches National Park, Moab, UT 84532, USA
[get directions]

You'll see petroglyphs of mountain sheep, riders on horseback (dates it to post Spanish period - 1540 ) and human figures created by the Ute Indians.

D markerPetroglyph National Monument in New Mexico -
Petroglyph National Monument, 6001 Unser Blvd NW, Albuquerque, NM 87120, USA
[get directions]

Between 300 and 700 years ago the Navajo, Apache and Pueblo Indians created a multitude of images.

E markerWailua River State Park -
Wailua River State Park, Hawaii, USA
[get directions]

Kiʻi Pōhaku petroglyphs found at the Wailua Complex of Heiaus — heiau located at Wailua River State Park, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

F markerPetroglyph Provincial Park, BC, Canada -
Petroglyph Provincial Park, Nanaimo, BC V9R 6K5, Canada
[get directions]

The high concentration of prehistoric rock carvings is the main attraction at Petroglyph Provincial Park, located at the south end of Nanaimo.

G markerDampier Archipelago -
Dampier Archipelago, WA 6713, Australia
[get directions]

It's estimated that this district has many as one million images, some dated to 20,000 years ago.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
 Cave painting from the Lascaux cave in The Anthropos Pavilion of The Moravian Museum, Brno, Czech RepublicDanish naturalist, Peter Wilhelm Lund, copying rock paintings at Lagoa Santa, Brazil. Picture by P.A. Brandts who assisted him as an illustratorNanabozho pictograph, Mazinaw Rock, Bon Echo Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada
 Cave painting from the Lascaux cave in The Anthropos Pavilion of The Moravian Museum, Brno, Czech Republic
Cave painting from the Lascaux cave in The Anthropos Pavilion of The Moravian Museum, Brno, Czech Republic | Source
Danish naturalist, Peter Wilhelm Lund, copying rock paintings at Lagoa Santa, Brazil. Picture by P.A. Brandts who assisted him as an illustrator
Danish naturalist, Peter Wilhelm Lund, copying rock paintings at Lagoa Santa, Brazil. Picture by P.A. Brandts who assisted him as an illustrator | Source
Nanabozho pictograph, Mazinaw Rock, Bon Echo Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada
Nanabozho pictograph, Mazinaw Rock, Bon Echo Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada | Source

Pictographs

Pictographs are a form of prehistoric rock art representing painting sites. They are also represented by many cultures and are found on rock faces. Because they are more fragile and subject to degradation by the elements, surviving pictographs are often found in caves, rock shelters and dry climates. They are distinguished by drawing or painting on rock using one of the following as paint:

  • Charcoal,
  • Blood from sacrificed or hunted animals,
  • Minerals,
  • Chalk,
  • Hematite,
  • Red Ochre was a commonly used dye,
  • Black, white and yellow dyes were used less often.

The majority of pictograph artists traced their pictures using their finger dipped in dye. Some pictographs were created using brushes made of animal or vegetable fibre.

Pictograph Sites Around the World

show route and directions
A markerBon Echo Park, Ontario -
Bon Echo Provincial Park, RR 1, Cloyne, ON K0H 1K0, Canada
[get directions]

The unofficial mascot of Bon Echo Park is the Ojibwe trickster figure and culture hero, Nanabush, who is among the pictographs found in the area.

B markerMontignac, France -
Montignac, France
[get directions]

They contain some of the best-known Upper Paleolithic art. These paintings are estimated to be 17,300 years old.

C markerLagoa Santa, Brazil. -
Lagoa Santa - Minas Gerais, Brazil
[get directions]

The oldest reliably dated rock art in the Americas is known as the "Horny Little Man." carved in Lapa do Santo, a cave in central-eastern Brazil.

D markerPictograph Cave, Billings Montana -
Pictograph Cave State Park, 2300 Lake Elmo Dr, Billings, Mt 59105, USA
[get directions]

Pictographs are still visible in Pictograph Cave, which is the largest of the three caves. Some of the pictographs are over 3500 years old.

E markerLake Superior Provincial Park -
Lake Superior Provincial Park, Wawa, ON, Canada
[get directions]

One of the most famous pictograph sites in Canada is found in Agawa Bay, within Lake Superior Provincial Park.

Theories Explaining the Existence of Ancient Rock Art

The interpretation of rock art is extremely difficult. Having been created, in many cases, thousands of years ago, the exact meanings of these art works have been lost with their creators. Many theories, however, exist in explaining the existence of ancient rock art. Images of people, hunting, fishing, animals and decorative symbols or motifs have been represented in many examples of this art form. It may be that each artist had his/her own reason for their artistic expression so many of the following theories may hold validity.

  • It may have been a form of ancient graffiti.
  • It has been linked with the search for helping spirits and thus spirituality of the ancients.
  • It may be linked to shamans whose major tasks involved healing, prophesy and vision quests which may have involved symbols etched or painted on rock faces.
  • Some rock art may have served as a sign post pointing to good food or water resources.
  • As rock art predated writing, it may have been an attempt by local tribes to record local history such as hunting records, important life events and things seen around them.
  • Some may have depicted celestial events.

Using this photograph of glyphs of Petroglyphs Provincial Park, answer the quiz questions above.
Using this photograph of glyphs of Petroglyphs Provincial Park, answer the quiz questions above. | Source
 The oldest petroglyphs in Alta Norway are from circa 4200 BC, and the area was probably in use until 500 BC. In all, 6.300 petroglyphs have been documented in the several places in Alta.
The oldest petroglyphs in Alta Norway are from circa 4200 BC, and the area was probably in use until 500 BC. In all, 6.300 petroglyphs have been documented in the several places in Alta. | Source
Transfer of petroglyphs from Las Labradas in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico using cloth and beets.
Transfer of petroglyphs from Las Labradas in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico using cloth and beets. | Source

Dating Rock Art

It is impossible to accurately date most rock art. Any dates provided are usually estimates because the methods used will date the rocks rather than the petroglyphs or pictographs. Without artifacts present at the site, it is also difficult to determine the group of people who created the art. There are two types of methods used to date rock art.

1. Relative dating:

  • This type may use the degree of weathering.
  • It may also use superimposition analysis requiring overlapping images, stylistic analysis and inter-site patterning.

2. Absolute dating:

  • Presently, rock art may be dated using nearby, datable archaeological remains.
  • Radio carbon dating may be used.
  • The direct dating of the rock art may be possible in some cases.
  • Some rock art can be linked to more recent time periods due to images of sailing ships, hunters with guns and European-style dwellings.
  • A few examples of rock art from the 1800's and 1900s actually have the date of their creation carved next to them.

Many examples of rock art are disappearing due to weathering and vandalism. There are some artists who have and continue to record petroglyphs by creating rubbings of these works of art. George Creed, of South Rawdon, Nova Scotia was one such individual who made tracings of the Mi'kmaw petroglyphs at Kejumkujik and McGowan Lake in 1887 and 1888. Creed's tracings are the only record of many of these petroglyphs which continue to be eroded by natural weathering processes and in some cases vandalism.

Resources Used

Friedland, Lois. About.com Adventure Travel. Hikes and Gentle Walks to See Petroglyphs and Pictographs. 2012

Government of Ontario. Ontario Parks. Petroglyphs 2012 Information Guide. ISBN #978-1-4435-9389-2 (2012ed.).

Hirst, K. Kris. About.com. Petroglyphs. 2012

King, Hobart. Geology.com. Rock Art: Petroglyphs and Pictographs. 2005-2012

Nova Scotia Museum of Cultural History. Carved in Stone. 2002

Vastokas, Joan M. Rev. Serge Lemaitre and Melanie Fafard. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Pictographs and Petroglyphs. 2012

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Comments 12 comments

missolive profile image

missolive 4 years ago from Texas

This is incredibly interesting. I always wonder about the people in our history that created many of these artifacts and drawings. My brother is a geologist and has shared many wonderful stories with us. Thank you for this insightful and comprehensive hub. I learned quite a bit.


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

Many years ago, I attended an informal presentation on the rock art of Baja California, by an artist whose own work is strongly influenced by ancient art.

One point she made was that the creators incorporated natural features of the rock face into cave paintings. For example, if there's already an inch-wide ledge in the bottom half of area taken up by the painting, the artist my depict animals jumping off that ledge.

Voted up and interesting.


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Marisa, glad you found it interesting. My day at the petroglyphs park was extremely interesting. The boys and I learned a lot. It was knowledge we were happy to pass on.


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Larry, we too also saw that in the petroglyphs we visited. Snakes were depicted coming out of rock fissures. These works of art were so amazing to see up close!


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

This was very fascinating with a lot of good information. Voted awesome and up.


Doc Sonic profile image

Doc Sonic 4 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to speak with the people who made these paintings, and hear the reasons behind what they were doing? It's a shame we're losing so many of these. Too bad there isn't a way to preserve them. Very nice hub.


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

aviannovice, glad to hear you enjoyed this one. Rock art is fascinating and wonderful to see first hand.


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Doc, it would be fascinating to interview an original rock artist. At Petroglyphs Provincial Park they have surrounded the glyph site with an elaborate glass and steel structure which is climate controlled. It is at least slowing down tremendously the ravages of time and vandalism is no longer a problem!


K9keystrokes profile image

K9keystrokes 4 years ago from Northern, California

Your quiz was really fun! I actually scored 100%! This type of historic art is just remarkable. You offer some very interesting information surrounding ancient rock art story telling. Fascinating read!

HubHugs~


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Indie, it is a beautiful art form I agree. Glad you took the quiz! Better yet, so happy you enjoyed my hub. Thanks again for your continued support. It means so very much!


thomdrilling profile image

thomdrilling 2 years ago

Great article and photos. I have plans to travel more to the SW states and view more of the petroglyphs.


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Glad you enjoyed the article. Hope you get to see more of this magnificent ancient art in your travels.

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