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Petroglyphs: Art That Rocks (Literally)


Today's Snack: Did you know that there is a food category called "stone fruits"? These fruits have "stones" in their middles. But they aren't really rocks. That's another way of saying that they have pits. "Pits" are actually the big seeds of the fruit that you find in the middle!

"Stone fruits" match today's art activity because you will be learning about art that uses stones. So why not have a snack with a stone? Try one or more of these fruits:  cherries, plums, apricots, nectarines or peaches. If it's not summertime, when they are in season, try dried varieties.




Mechanical pencil (no graphite/lead needed)

Styrofoam block of any shape, with surface for carving


Time Period: 10,000 Years Ago


When you hear the word "prehistoric," what comes to mind? Dinosaurs? That's right: dinosaurs lived on Earth before humans started recording historical events. So we call that "prehistoric" times.

When you hear the phrase "prehistoric art," what comes to mind? Cave painting? Right again!

Cave painting is an incredibly old art form with many examples that have survived through hundreds and thousands of years. They've lasted, because the caves protected the paint from the sun, rain, snow and wind.

A "pictograph" is a word for painted rock art. But another word, with some of the same letters, designates a lesser known type of rock art that also was around in prehistoric times:

A "petroglyph" is rock art that a carver makes by using a stone tool to peck or cut lines into a rock to make a picture.

Where would you look to find a petroglyph? Native American art from North America has some examples.



This picture shows a petroglyph from a collection called the Thorsen Creek petroglyphs in British Columbia, Canada. They belong to the reserve of land held by the Nuxalkmc (pronounced Noo-hawk-mic) people, whose name is also shortened to Nuxalk.

What kind of image do you see in the petroglyph?

Most of the time, petroglyphs depict animals, animal faces, human faces, and geometric patterns.

Historians and archaeologists have also found petroglyphs in the western part of the United States, west of the Rocky Mountains but east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.

The scholars who study these petroglyphs have found two main styles of carvings. One style is "curvilinear" because the carved lines have curved "o" and "s" shapes like circles, sun disks, and snakes.

The second style is "rectilinear" because the lines have rectangular patterns made with grids, dots, and crosshatches. Think of crosshatches as like a whole bunch of little crosses or X's to fill space, like this:










Carving into rocks must be HARD - a hard job on a hard surface! The Native American artists who made petroglyphs not only had to be strong and skillful with their hands, but they had to be clever with their brains.

Because they did not work with paint, they could not use colors to help identify what their art meant or to create certain responses in the people who viewed the art.

If they didn't use color, what DID they use? They relied on workmanship, technique, balance, symmetry, and asymmetry in their art to create certain visual effects.

Try making your own petroglyph. Only instead of a hard rock, let's use something lots softer - a piece of Styrofoam.

Pick the subject that you will carve or peck (yes, peck - like a chicken!) into your "rock."

Will you make a picture of something that people can recognize, or make a pattern?

Then, choose whether you want to use the curvilinear style with lots of curved lines, or the rectilinear style with lots of straight lines.

Use the tip of a mechanical pencil (you don't need the lead to be exposed) to carve into the piece of Styrofoam that you use as your rock.

Experiment with dragging the pencil tip to make a continuous line, but also see what you can do by making dotted lines and crosshatches.

Which art do you like better now?

The petroglyph that you just made, or the pictographs you've seen in photos of cave paintings?



Oxford Art Online, "Native North American art, §III: Carving and sculpture"

Oxford Art Online, "Native North American art, §I: Introduction"



By Susan Darst Williams • • Art History 01 © 2012




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