When art enthusiasts first come across Teyjah McAren’s modern cave paintings, they often have questions about the meaning of the symbols they see. Visitors also want to know more about the origins of rock art and petroglyphs and the ancient peoples who painted them in the distant past. Learn more with our helpful guide to the language, symbols and heritage of cave art.
Ancient peoples around the world made art on natural geological surfaces such as cave walls, cliff faces, bedrock and boulders. Rock art includes pictographs, petroglyphs, engravings, petroforms, and geoglyphs.
A hieroglyph is a form of picture writing which was the form of writing used in ancient Egypt. Each cluster of symbols represented a word or idea rather than just a sound like the alphabet.
A petroglyph is a rock art design that has been created by carving or engraving. Other terms for petroglyphs are “rock art” and “rock writing”.
A pictograph is a rock art design that was drawn or painted on a rock surface. Art materials could include powdered minerals, charcoal, plant substances, or blood.
A geoglyph is rock art made on the ground. Geoglyphs include intaglios, which are made by removing stones or portions of the ground; petroforms (also called rock alignments) made by rearranging stones to form sculptures like Inukshuks); and gravel geoglyphs, which are shaped from gravel-covered areas.
Rock art was created by innovative creators using a wide range of methods and materials. One way was through pecking the stone with tools to give it a rough, pitted surface. Rubbing or wearing down the stone was used to create lines.
Symbols and images could be incised, gouged out in intaglio technique, chipped out with a stone, sculpted, overpainted or crosshatched.
Some rock art was painted with charcoal and earth pigments mixed with grease, gum, or water. Often, engraving and painting techniques were sometimes combined.
Some believe that petroglyphs were created to mark tribal territory, indicate water, or show activities conducted in those areas. Other petroglyphs seem to record important events, such as a successful hunt or the migration of a tribe. Some symbols recorded good hunting sites. Others tracked the movement of the sun, the moon, planets, and stars. Some petroglyphs seem to relate to a spiritual life, religious ceremonies, sacred beings and the activities of shamans. Some rock art hints at epic legends and mythical protagonists.
Petroglyphs can be associated with particular tribes or styles, but exact interpretation is exceedingly challenging. As these early cultures died out, their messages may have been lost, or the meaning altered with each successive generation. Even present-day members from different tribes may read the symbols differently. By learning more about these ancient cultures, we may gain insight into the mysterious signs they have left to us through the epochs.
Rock Art is found on almost every continent, in caves on boulders or rocky outcrops, on ancient monuments and other structures such as Stonehenge.