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Ancient Petroglyphs and Rock Carvings

Updated on September 11, 2019
Austinstar profile image

L. Cargill, Medical Laboratory Scientist, ASCP. Retired Blood Banker and Laboratorian. Loves to write about a wide range of subjects. Enjoy!

Star Maps in Ancient Petroglyphs?

The Georgia Forsyth Petroglyph
The Georgia Forsyth Petroglyph | Source

Petroglyphs, Rock Carvings and Cave Art

Sometimes this ancient art is known as rock engraving and pictograms. To carve a petroglyph one must chisel, or abrade the rock surface. This was done with primitive tools by indigenous people all over the world.

Most petroglyphs are associated with prehistoric cultures. This means before learned historians discovered the art of writing and how to make books using some sort of paper and ink. Amazingly, the petroglyphs have proven to be even better at record keeping than most other methods.

Petroglyphs are different from ancient cave art paintings or other rock paintings. Petroglyphs are actually engraved into the rock surface rather than using some type of paint to coat the rocks It's akin to the difference between carving and painting. The carvings and engravings tend to last much longer than paintings, although some cave art paintings have lasted for thousands of years.

Petroglyph National Monument, NM

Photo taken at Petroglyph National Monument, on the west side of Albuquerque, New Mexico
Photo taken at Petroglyph National Monument, on the west side of Albuquerque, New Mexico | Source

Where to Find Petroglyph Art

Petroglyphs are found all over the world. The highest concentrations of recorded and studied petroglyphs are found in Africa, Australia, North America (particularly the Southern U.S.), Siberia and surprisingly, Scandinavia. None have been found in Antarctica.

Rock carvings are some of the oldest known writing examples among ancient cultures. Some petroglyphs have been dated back to 40,000 years ago. Around 8,000 years ago, pictograms, cave art and other early writing systems began to appear. It must have been a source of communal history that inspired people to make records of their time.

It seems as if all early civilizations had an inner desire to leave a trace of themselves, to communicate with the future. Petroglyphs must have the been the early equivalent to our story boards. It almost seems like wherever there was a rock or enduring surface in the world, the early settlers needed to use the surface to pass on information.

Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs

Petrified Forest National Park in Apache County, Arizona, United States
Petrified Forest National Park in Apache County, Arizona, United States | Source

Petroglyph Interpretations

Petroglyphs serve many purposes. Theories abound on how to interpret rock carvings and cave art drawings. These marks are quite literally pictures into another time and culture. The meanings may have been local or global. The artists are either very good or perhaps deliberately vague or use symbols that no longer have any meaning at all.

The general interpretations include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • astronomical markers, or "star maps"
  • land maps - geocontourglyphs that show rivers, trails, mountains, etc.
  • symbolic writing
  • historical recordings
  • stories and legends
  • religious icons
  • some sort of recorded language
  • land claim (territory) markers
  • travel logs of migratory peoples
  • simple art drawings
  • observed celestial events such as eclipses, auroras and comets

Pictographs and Meanings

Many petroglyphs have common qualities and even show the same types of glyphs even though they are located in widely scattered areas of the globe. Theories exist that petroglyphs have commonalities due to migration or simply express the way the human brain sees the world. These expressions may be linked to genetics.

Circles and forms made with circles appear often in petroglyphs. Mazes and spoked wheels are also popular. Circles may indicate the sun or other stars. They may be a guide to constellations and other types of 'star maps'. The classic interpretation of a circle is a symbol of infinity (no beginning, no end),

Kokopelli, a stylized 'god' of the SW native American tribes, and other 'gods' like him are common petroglyphs. Kokopelli is most often shown playing a flute or other musical instrument and leading a group of people. In the story of Kokopelli as told by the Hopi and Anasazi, he traveled around the world changing the seasons and bestowing fertility upon the people.

Animals and hunting scenes are common to petroglyphs, rock art and cave paintings. It has been surmised that these are recordings of successful hunts and perhaps instructions to future generations.

Some pictographs may simply be doodles from goat and sheep herders or watchmen. They had time to sit and watch the flock while scraping and carving rocks around them. Artistic displays have been a habit of all early civilizations.

Like the chalk language of hobos, pictographs were perhaps sign posts for other migratory travelers. These landmarks may have indicated water, sources of food/hunting and paths to follow. They may have been early address markers.

Kokopelli - Follow the music

Kokopelli petroglyph. Seen on the left with his typical humpback and flute.
Kokopelli petroglyph. Seen on the left with his typical humpback and flute. | Source

Where to find the petroglyphs mentioned in this hub.

Petroglyph National Monument:
Petroglyph National Monument, 6510 Western Trail Northwest, Albuquerque, NM 87120, USA

get directions

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

Newspaper Rock, Arizona:
Newspaper Rock, Arizona 86502, USA

get directions

Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs, Arizona

Mortendad cave, Los Alamos, New Mexico:
Los Alamos, NM 87544, USA

get directions

Mortendad Cave, Los Alamos, New Mexico

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Lela


Submit a Comment
  • profile image

    cee hall 

    5 years ago

    IF the Forsyth petroglyph is a star map, could the double discs with line between them be Dongba, southern China pictograph language meaning vehicle.

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Hello habib. What country are you writing from? Are these photos published somewhere where we can have a look at them? Thanks.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    Hello and tired Nbasyd Friend

    I'm an archaeologist in the country's history.

    I have some photos of carvings I do not know what they mean.

    This symbol is the treasure of treasures.

    If one of you guys can help me I would be happy to hear your comments.

    If you like a comment, please email me your message.

    I think the photos on the rock represents a hunting area for different animals.

    Photos of all animals that live in this area shows.

    Shows how to hunt animals.

    The number of hunters in the region are shown.

    Thank you.

  • thomdrilling profile image

    Big Dan 

    6 years ago

    Great article. I had no idea that petroglyphs can look alike even if they are far apart geographically. Makes me wonder more about them now.

  • akirchner profile image

    Audrey Kirchner 

    7 years ago from Washington

    Will let ya know when I go~

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Send me some cool photos and permission to use them and I'll do a hub about the Oregon petroglyphs!

    They are cool, aren't they?

  • akirchner profile image

    Audrey Kirchner 

    7 years ago from Washington

    Hey Lela--love petroglyphs and rock carvings of all kinds--we have quite a few here in Oregon. In fact, I'm supposed to go do a photo op if/when it warms up a bit out at one of the John Day Fossil beds...amazing what you can learn about from the drawings.

    They have a beautiful exhibit in Fossil (who'd a guessed?), OR and another I've been to up on the Columbia River at The Dalles--my favorite though are the musical ones~

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Maybe the graffiti artists were prisoners and this was a form of amusement while they did their time? Or they could have been forced to 'break rocks' that had graffiti on them?

    Some of the petroglyphs look like someone went to a great deal of trouble to do them. Some artists just need to be seen, I guess.

  • christopheranton profile image

    Christopher Antony Meade 

    7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

    Very interesting article. Wouldn't it be amazing if they were just graffiti? Maybe their was loads more once and they were all obliterated by stone age teenagers doing their community service.

  • Ruchira profile image


    7 years ago from United States

    Interesting hub, austinstar.

    I have always been intrigued by the drawings on the walls of the caves and it was interesting to read into them

    Voted up indeed.

  • drbj profile image

    drbj and sherry 

    7 years ago from south Florida

    The next time you examine a rock carved by the Maya, Lela, you may be able to decipher it as: "Boy, did we do a number on those poor fools!"

    But I did enjoy your petroglyphic hub.

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Hi Bob, I think the Georgia guide stones may be an attempt to do just what you have described. I'm toying with the idea of having my message (as soon as I think of what that may be) engraved in stone. I'm pretty sure headstones are a way of speaking from beyond the grave too. I mean, there are plenty of rocks around and they will last millions of years, so what could be a more suitable medium for our intelligence? It makes the phrase "dumb as a box of rocks" take on new meaning for sure.

  • diogenes profile image


    7 years ago from UK and Mexico

    Modern man might consider continuing the art of petroglyphs for the information of those humans who will come after us. With our skill in the written and other arts, we could leave a comprehensive record of our own life and times - and one which would endure much longer than our cities and our electronic storage, etc.

    Those creative coves who do imaginative graffiti in our cities might be persuaded to vogage to the mountains and desert and change their paint for hammer and chisel.

    Interesting article.


  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Hi tillson - humans do seem to be obsessed with communication. It is what makes us humans want to stick together. Animals communicate (anyone with two pets knows this), but only humans seem to have the power to make permanent histories.

    Howdy Will - I think a lot of it is the work of children. They are still driven to 'tag' walls and buildings, right? The doodles of today really haven't changed that much. But some petroglyphs do seem to impart a story.

    Hi Carol - This is the start of several hubs I will be writing about rock art. Some cultures have taken messages in stone very seriously, including the big message from Moses.

  • carol7777 profile image

    carol stanley 

    7 years ago from Arizona

    We went to Sedona a few years ago and saw many of these petroglyphs. Interesting and great photos. I enjoyed reading this and voting up+++

  • WillStarr profile image


    7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

    A friend of mine (a White Mountain Apache) once remarked that he thought it was just the work of children at campsites and waterholes....sort of an ancient doodling using established patterns.

    It was a point to ponder. What if it's no more that that?

  • tillsontitan profile image

    Mary Craig 

    7 years ago from New York

    I am always amazed at human ingenuity, especially when it is from thousands of years ago. The fact that similar symbols are found in different locations is certainly food for thought. This was a great topic with interesting pictures.

    Voted up, useful, and interesting.


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