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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

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

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

Use The Photo Below To Answer The Quiz Questions

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Glyph number 1 is thought by historians to represent
    • Snake
    • Turtle
    • Shamanistic spirit
    • Crane
    • Nanabozho
  2. Glyph number 2 is thought by historians to represent
    • Snake
    • Turtle
    • Shamanistic spirit
    • Crane
    • Nanabozho
  3. Glyph number 3 is thought to represent
    • Snake
    • Turtle
    • Shamanistic Spirit
    • Crane
    • Nanabozho
  4. Glyph number 4 is thought to represent
    • Snake
    • Turtle
    • Shamanistic Spirit
    • Crane
    • Nanabozho

Answer Key

  1. Crane
  2. Shamanistic spirit
  3. Turtle
  4. Nanabozho

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.

 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.

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.

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

Comments

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on July 04, 2014:

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

Big Dan on June 28, 2014:

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

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 20, 2012:

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!

India Arnold from Northern, California on August 20, 2012:

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 (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 19, 2012:

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!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 19, 2012:

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

Glen Nunes from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on August 18, 2012:

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.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on August 18, 2012:

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

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 18, 2012:

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!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 18, 2012:

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.

Larry Fields from Northern California on August 17, 2012:

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.

Marisa Hammond Olivares from Texas on August 17, 2012:

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.