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10 Interesting Rock Art from the Ancient World

Ancient rock art

Creativity seems to reside in humans from time immemorial. We have sculptures, tombs, petroglyphs, paintings, carvings, weapons, tools, etc., from all eras of history. The patterns and meanings may vary, but they all carry their own historic or symbolic value and are nothing less than intriguing art. One of the sources to know about man’s artistry is rock art. Considering that, please read the list below of the 10 such rock art from ancient history that you’ll really find interesting

1. Bir Hima, Saudi Arabia

The Bir Hima rock art site in Saudi Arabia is full of rock petroglyphs and inscriptions. The art can be dated back to Palaeolithic and Neolithic times, and it covers the time span of 2500 to 1000 BCE. Thousands of petroglyphs that depict humans and camels and a handful depicting giraffes and other animals were found in the 1950s.

A camel petroglyph at the Bir Hima
A camel petroglyph at the Bir Hima. Image credits: Reddit

The ancient site of Bir Hima is located in the Najran Province, 200 kilometers away from the city of Najran. Many of the carvings show human cavalry and infantrymen engaged in battles wielding weapons.

Other petroglyphs noticed on the site were those of ostriches, domestic cattle, camels, and even date palms. There are approximately 18,000 carvings along of camels and 1,300 of human figures. The figures don’t exclude female images with some interpreted as the goddess Al-Lat, but that has not been confirmed. 

Bir Hima
Petroglyph at Bir Hima in Saudi Arabia. Image credit: Retlaw Snellac/Flickr via Wikimedia

The rich ancient site was discovered by Philby Lippen and was written about by E. Anati in 1951. Some parts of the art are so dense that once an expedition member recorded 250 images at a single place. (1, 2)

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2. The Cave of Altamira, Spain

The Cave of Altamira in Spain has one of the finest examples of prehistoric paintings and engravings. The cave is known for its charcoal drawings, polychrome paintings of local fauna, and human hands. These are the first European paintings that are of prehistoric origin.  

Cave of Altamira
Red bison from Altamira Cave. Image credit: Shutterstock

The town of Santillana del Mar in which the cave is located also has some historical significance. The earliest artwork can be dated back to 36,000 years ago but was discovered in 1868.

The discovery was actually made by a hunter, and it was only 10 years later that a local nobleman, Marcelino Sanz de Satuola, worked on its excavation and exploration. The paintings of the cave were not even accepted as genuine until the end 19th century.

The entire cave is 971 feet long and the height varies from 3.8 to 8.7 feet. The theme of the paintings is centered on animals and filled with figures of bison. Many of the engraved paintings appear three-dimensional because of the artist’s heavy work on the surface of the rocks. (1, 2)

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3. Ubirr, Australia

Ubis is a rock formation at Kakadu National Park in Australia and has a vast collection of Aboriginal rock paintings and rock art. The paintings feature a variety of topics like animals, traditional x-ray art, and the first human contact with Europeans that are painted since 40,000 BCE. 

Ubirr
Aboriginal rock art at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. Image credit: Shutterstock

The Kakadu National Park lies in the Northern Territory of Australia and has a number of ancient art galleries. The paintings at Ubirr are mostly of animal figures that include catfish, mullet, barramundi, turtles, wallabies, etc.

These paintings were not painted in one stroke, rather they were painted and re-painted for years by different artists starting from 40,000 BCE. However, most of the paintings can be traced back to 2,000 years ago, and some even have been repainted in modern times. 

Ubirr
Rock art. Image credit: Shutterstock

The most popular site at Ubirr is the Rainbow Serpent Gallery which is traditionally a women-only site.

Most of the paints used by the artists were derived from the pigments crushed on stone palettes. For brushes, they used human hairs, feathers, chewed sticks, and reeds. One can notice that almost all the paintings are red in color, and the reason is that they are painted with haematite, a reddish iron oxide that lasts the longest of all colors. (1, 2)

4. The Giraffe Carvings, Niger

The Giraffe carvings in the Sahara Desert in Niger are said to be the largest petroglyphs in the world. There are two life-size-giraffe images, and the bigger one of them is 20 feet in height, being the largest known single prehistoric art piece in the world. The petroglyphs are 7,000 to 9,000 years old.

Giraffe Carvings
Two life-size-giraffe carved in a stone. Image credit: bradshawfoundation

The art is also known as “Dabous Giraffe,” and the art form in which the images are created is called “Bubalus style.” The images are carved out of several small engravings that collectively look like a picture of a giraffe. The art style has been observed to be prominent in the Large Wild Fauna Period or 9,000 to 6,500 BCE. 

The dedication towards the art shows that the creature was significant to early African lives. Both the giraffe figures connect to a human figure through a long line that has some shamanic interpretations in symbolism. Most likely, it symbolizes the onset of rain, but it is not entirely clear. 

The findings were recorded by photographer David Coulson of the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) and French archaeologist Jean Clottes. (source)

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5. Cave of Hands, Argentina

One of the earliest and unusual arts can be found in the Cave of Hands in Patagonia, Argentina. These are interesting stencil paintings of handprints and animals that are as old as 10,000 years old. 

Cave of hands
Famous paintings of hands. Image credit: Shutterstock

The remote cave is also known as “Las Cueva de Las Manos” and is situated in the valley of the Pinturas River. There are three different categories of paintings that can be found inside the cave, but the most recognized art is the hand paintings.

These are literally hundreds of colorful stencil paintings of handprints on the cave walls that are nearly 5,000 years old. It is believed that the dwellers that visited the caves left their handprints on the wall. 

Other paintings involve representations of animals and human figures that are also drawn by stencil technique are older than the handprints. These figures are mostly reddish in color. 

The cave was discovered in 1949 by researchers, but it was studied extensively only after 1960. The cave was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. (1, 2)

Also read: 10 Incredible Ancient Structures Carved Out of Solid Rock

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