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Discovering the Magic of Rock Pictures

posted May 6, 2010, 8:56 PM by Layne Lawless   [ updated May 6, 2010, 9:02 PM ]

For decades, archaeologists have been fascinated by symbols and pictures on rocks and caves. Almost everyone knows about the pictographs in the caves at Lescaux, even though they may not know how to pronounce the name. Some have even used the rather disparaging term “rock art” to describe the pictures and symbols, as if their creators had nothing better to do than to doodle on the rocks in their "leisure" time.

Rock pictures consist of two different types. Petroglyphs are pecked, abraded, or ground into the surface of the rock, similar to carving one's initials on a tree, but taking much more time. Petroglyphs may be found in concealed rock crevices or out in the open on boulders or cliff faces. Pictographs are painted on the rock, and are usually found inside caves, since weather and the passage of time would tend to obliterate them on the outside. Occasionally, a petroglyph will be found that is also painted.

Rock pictures are broadly divided into several different categories: geometrics or abstracts, animals, human figures, and anthropozoomorphic figures which contain both human and animal elements. Some sites contain only a couple of types, and many contain variations of all the types. Throughout the world, there is an amazing similarity in the pictures.

Dating of Rock Pictures

The age of rock pictures is difficult to determine, but accuracy is increasing as newer dating methods are being developed. In the southwest desert, petroglyphs are dated by the amount of “desert varnish” that has accumulated on the rock face. The petroglyphs are pecked into the desert varnish, and reveal the layer of rock underneath the “varnish” or oxidized face of the rock. The growth of lichen on the rock face can help to date petroglyphs less than 700 years old.

Subject content also is a factor in dating petroglyphs and pictographs. Pictures of extinct animals have been found in European caves. In the Coso range, at China Lake Naval Weapons Center, in Ridgecrest, CA, petroglyphs are partially dated by a change in hunting technology. The transition from atlatl and spears to bows and arrows marked a significant advance, and dates can vary from 1,000 BCE to 300 CE.[1] If pictographs are found along with artifacts in caves, then the date of the artifacts may indicate their approximate age, as well as aid in interpretation of the pictures. Estimates of the age of rock pictures range from 33,000 years old to as little as 200-400 years old.

What Do They Mean?


Many professional archaeologists have studied rock pictures, but not too many choose to interpret their meanings. Unless artifacts are found lying nearby, or are excavated at the site, interpretation is rather speculative. Up until recently, most scholars had chosen to speculate that the rock pictures were some form of sympathetic magic for hunting, fertility, or destruction (in the case of dangerous animals).[2]

Those who preferred a secular explanation to a religious one, have suggested that the symbols and images may be forms of counting, time keeping (as the seasons change), graffiti, directions to good hunting areas or water, or historical records of battles. In the case of historical records, there are some petroglyphs of men on horseback shooting arrows in the American Southwest. It is assumed that they were done by Native Americans, since there were no horses in the New World until Europeans brought them. In this case, dating the petroglyphs is easy. They can’t be more than 400 years old. This is a date considered quite young for most rock pictures.

I believe most rock pictures are thousands of years old, and reflect the spiritual beliefs of their makers. They were made to record a shamanic journey, to aid novices in their vision quests, to curry favor with their deities, and to create magic in the form of plentiful food and good health. We will journey from Europe and Africa to the American Southwest in our quest for the meanings of petroglyphs and pictographs.

Many archeologists are starting to use ethnography from current native groups to interpret the meanings of rock pictures. An older example of this comes from Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and Africa, by Frobenius and Fox, published in 1937. In an effort to interpret pictographs in Europe, the authors tell a story about how their pygmy companions in Africa had to do an elaborate ritual before they could go hunting to feed them. They went to the top of a hill, drew a game animal in the dirt and shot it in the neck with a bow and arrow at sunrise, as another pygmy recited an incantation. Later, the hunting party returned with a bushbok. The next day, at sunrise, they went to the same hill, dabbed hair and blood from the animal on the picture, and then obliterated it. This is an example of the older interpretation of rock pictures being sympathetic magic for hunting.

The authors claim the Paleolithic connection of Europeans and Africans is established by finding cones of African fauna in conjunction with Stone Age implements in Europe.

Seasonal change was very important to early humans. They needed to know when to plant, and when water would be coming to water their crops. Shortening of daylight was a concern—there was less time in which to accomplish tasks, it was harder to stay warm, and there was doubt as to whether supernatural effort might be necessary for the return of the sun. Having good weather was a matter of survival. Accordingly, many Native American groups view the sun, moon, planets, and morning and evening stars as deities.[3] Grace Burkholder asserts: “[Native Americans] assumed a personal responsibility for encouraging their Sun Deity not to stray but to continue on a path which would benefit all the earth’s peoples. This was accomplished through the proper performance of ceremonies and rituals.”[4]

Burkholder surveyed 15 different locations in Nevada for signs of petroglyphs related to important seasonal changes, such as solstices, equinoxes, and midseason. The petroglyphs that were solar markers were often located in small, rocky caverns, or in rock crevices where they were not easily seen. They are usually abstracts or geometrics, or recognized sun symbols, e. g., the culturally universal sphere with rays emanating from it. They often occur where there are other petroglyphs. At certain times, usually sunset or sunrise, a dagger of sunlight will penetrate the petroglyph, the angle of the sun even matching the angle of the petroglyph. This occurs only at these precise times of the year. Since most of the petroglyphs were hidden, it is likely their makers did not want them to be accessible to just anyone. This suggests to me that they were done by shamans, not ordinary tribe members.

What was the purpose of these petroglyphs? Was it to gain power from the sun deity? The occurrence of vulva symbols along with solar markers may indicate a wish for fertility or perhaps worship of a female deity. Ethnographic accounts indicate that harvesting of agave fruit was concurrent with spring, and “a ribbon of sunlight delineating a sacred area” along with an abundance of food allowed “people to participate in the rituals which renewed their faith in the supernatural.”[5] The table of attributes and drawings of petroglyphs are included in Appendix A.


Spirals, Snakes, and the Goddess


Petroglyphs also occur on megaliths or in passage graves, such as that at Newgrange. “During the Neolithic [era] the art becomes abstract. Spirals and geometric designs appear on stones and rock surfaces…”[6] The spiral is a recurring theme, found in the temples of Malta, in passage graves, and upper Paleolithic caves in Europe, as well as in the New World. Marija Gimbutas says: “The spiral, symbol of energy and cyclic time, appears in the Upper Paleolithic, where it is associated with sepentiforms and horned animals.”[7] Even the famous Stonehenge has petroglyphs on it. There are carvings on the stones that symbolize the protectress of the dead; they face the sun at winter solstice.[8]

While it is beyond the scope of this work to interpret every symbol, the spiral seems worthy of a bit more attention. Since I know that bull’s horns and snakes are associated with the Goddess, and as Gimbutas says: “…the [spiral is] both an artistic geometrization and a symbolic abstraction of the dynamic snake…”[9] I’d like to hypothesize here that a journey into a cave or rock shelter was a way for ancient peoples to touch and commune with the Goddess. Even if you were to be strictly Freudian about it, you have to admit that caves have a distinctly female quality. As I shall reveal later, the petroglyph symbols were often associated with a mystical journey.

Ancient Australian Aboriginals believed that the Rainbow Serpent Goddess is the creator of the land and of the people. The Museum of the Northern Territory reports that the earliest rock painting of the Rainbow Serpent is perhaps more than 8,000 years old. “The mythology of the Rainbow Serpent comes to life in the landscape during the expansion of the serpentine waterways when the wet season fills the river banks. The waterways’ crystalline appearance and undulating shape mimic that of a snake and are captured in the glyphs of the area and in the Aboriginal understanding of the human female. The rainbow, shimmering with colors of life, appears in the sky after the fecund rainy season, at a time when fruits, vegetables, insects, and animals appear in droves. The rainbows in the sky are the spirit, soul, or ‘shade’ of the Rainbow Serpent that lives in a deep water hole or underground.”[10]

Spirals and Energy Conduction

Maxine Asher on the spiral symbol: “After I observed the proliferation of the spiral in many archeological sites, I began to hypothesize that it could represent the involution and the evolution of the universe, or the yin and the yang contraction principle believed to operate among all living things. In other words, the ancients may have known that energy is conducted most efficiently through a balance of the forces so they carved those symbols on the monuments to facilitate that balance. In nature we observe that the spiral is the basic form of the DNA molecule, the nautilus shell, and the intricate makeup of many flowers and plants.”[11]

“Wherever [spirals and random dots] were found, I experienced maximum energy flow. The ancients may have concentrated on the symbols in order to produce an altered state of consciousness which allowed for movement and flow. Even when ceremonies were not purposefully undertaken, the symbols kept the energy mass in motion in and around the sacred areas.”[12] (See Appendix B.)