AskDefine | Define petroglyph

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A rock carving, especially one made in prehistoric times


a rock carving, especially one made in prehistoric times

Extensive Definition

Petroglyphs are images created by removing part of a rock surfaces 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 mainly in the arctic.


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".
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." In his cataloguing of Scottish rock art, Ronald Morris summarised 104 different theories on their interpretation. .
Other, more controversial, explanations are mostly 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, 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







  • 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


North America

image:Petroglyphs on a Bishop Tuff tableland-750px.jpg|Petroglyphs on a Bishop Tuff tableland, eastern California, USA image:Pictograph_2_tds.jpg|Southern Utah, USA image:Pictograph_tds.jpg|Southern Utah, USA
Puerto Rico
  • La Piedra Escrita (The Written Rock) - Jayuya, Puerto Rico



Puerto Rico

  • La Piedra Escrita - Jayuya, Puerto Rico



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

Middle East


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
petroglyph in Catalan: Petroglif
petroglyph in Czech: Petroglyf
petroglyph in Danish: Helleristning
petroglyph in German: Petroglyphen
petroglyph in Spanish: Petroglifo
petroglyph in Esperanto: Petroglifo
petroglyph in Faroese: Helluristir
petroglyph in French: Pétroglyphe
petroglyph in Galician: Petróglifo
petroglyph in Indonesian: Petroglif
petroglyph in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Petroglypho
petroglyph in Italian: Incisioni rupestri
petroglyph in Hebrew: פטרוגליף
petroglyph in Dutch: Petroglief
petroglyph in Japanese: ペトログリフ
petroglyph in Norwegian: Helleristning
petroglyph in Norwegian Nynorsk: Helleristing
petroglyph in Polish: Petroglify
petroglyph in Portuguese: Petróglifo
petroglyph in Romanian: Petroglifă
petroglyph in Russian: Петроглифы
petroglyph in Slovak: Petroglyf
petroglyph in Serbo-Croatian: Petroglif
petroglyph in Finnish: Kalliopiirros
petroglyph in Swedish: Hällristning
petroglyph in Ukrainian: Петрогліфи
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