Rock Art of Ancient Peoples
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.
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.
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.
Petroglyph Sites Around the World
Deep within a forest northeast of Peterborough is the largest known concentration of Aboriginal rock carvings in Canada.
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
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.
Between 300 and 700 years ago the Navajo, Apache and Pueblo Indians created a multitude of images.
Kiʻi Pōhaku petroglyphs found at the Wailua Complex of Heiaus — heiau located at Wailua River State Park, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The high concentration of prehistoric rock carvings is the main attraction at Petroglyph Provincial Park, located at the south end of Nanaimo.
It's estimated that this district has many as one million images, some dated to 20,000 years ago.
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:
- Blood from sacrificed or hunted animals,
- 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
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.
They contain some of the best-known Upper Paleolithic art. These paintings are estimated to be 17,300 years old.
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.
Pictographs are still visible in Pictograph Cave, which is the largest of the three caves. Some of the pictographs are over 3500 years old.
One of the most famous pictograph sites in Canada is found in Agawa Bay, within Lake Superior Provincial Park.
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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.
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.
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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