rock carvings and paintings

rock carvings and paintings, designs inscribed on rock surfaces and huge stone monuments in many parts of the world by prehistoric or preindustrial peoples. They have been found on every continent and are usually from prehistoric times. Petroglyphs (rock carvings) are more widespread than pictographs (rock paintings), which are preserved chiefly in dry regions, inside caves, and under overhanging cliffs. It is thought that these designs were created for purposes of religious propitiation and sympathetic magic.

Whatever the motive, the prehistoric artist often reached great aesthetic heights, as in the Paleolithic art of Western Europe, the rock figures attributed to the San of S Africa, the Tassili cliff paintings discovered in the central Sahara that suggest that the area was once fertile, and the ground-level rock carvings of figures and designs in W Maharashtra, India. Similar evidence has been found in the Alps of N Italy. Successive styles and phases have been found, and several layers of designs often have been superimposed. Wild animals and hunting scenes abound, while the scenes of daily life were sometimes depicted alongside representations of ceremonies and deities. In Neolithic times herders and cows appeared, but rock art seems to have declined and disappeared with the advent of agriculture.

In Europe and Africa the style was largely naturalistic, while in Australia and the Americas designs were more often symbolic and geometric, and sometimes approached a primitive form of writing. In W Maharashtra, India, the petroglyphs of human beings are more stylized and those of animals more naturalistic. Carvings were usually incised or chipped out with a stone. Sometimes they were deeply gouged out in intaglio technique. The paintings, made with charcoal and earth pigments mixed with grease, gum, or water, vary from geometric designs and crude outlines to fully developed polychrome compositions; stenciled human hands are found in numerous places. Engraving and painting techniques were sometimes combined.

See D. S. Davidson, Aboriginal Australian and Tasmanian Rock Carvings and Paintings (1936); L. Frobenius and D. C. Fox, Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and Africa (1937, repr. 1972); J. D. Lajoux, The Rock Paintings of Tassili (tr. 1963); H. Kuhn, The Rock Pictures of Europe (tr. 1966); C. Grant, Rock Art of the American Indian (1967); D. N. Lee and H. C. Woodhouse, Art on the Rocks of Southern Africa (1970).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Prehistoric and Primitive Art