Dating Rock Art

A petroglyph is an image created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, carving, or abrading , as a form of rock art. Outside North America, scholars often use terms such as “carving”, “engraving”, or other descriptions of the technique to refer to such images. Petroglyphs are found worldwide, and are often associated with prehistoric peoples. Another form of petroglyph, normally found in literate cultures, a rock relief or rock-cut relief is a relief sculpture carved on “living rock” such as a cliff, rather than a detached piece of stone. While these relief carvings are a category of rock art, sometimes found in conjunction with rock-cut architecture , [1] they tend to be omitted in most works on rock art, which concentrate on engravings and paintings by prehistoric or nonliterate cultures. Some of these reliefs exploit the rock’s natural properties to define an image.

Petroglyphs and Pictographs

Modern critics would probably hail the up and coming rock artists that once inhabited Indonesia. About a hundred caves outside Moras, a town in the tropical forests of Sulawesi, were once lined with hand stencils and vibrant murals of abstract pigs and dwarf buffalo. Today only fragments of the artwork remain, and the mysterious artists are long gone.

Samples of organic matter and rock varnish from seven rock-art sites in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming and Montana were collected for dating purposes.

A major limitation in rock art studies is that rock art can be difficult to date. The dating techniques currently in use fall into two broad categories: relative dating and absolute dating. Relative dating techniques include observations of patterns of chemical and physical weathering , evidence that art has been painted over, stylistic patterns, and variations in the spatial patterns of rock art indicating chronological sequences of site occupation.

Absolute dating methods include analyses based on subjects depicted e. Occasionally, it has been possible to date rock art directly by chemically analyzing the organic materials that were used to draw it, for example, charcoal, plant fibers, and protein binders. A major problem with this approach, however, is that the sampling procedure damages the rock art to a certain extent.

Dating technologies include standard radiocarbon dating, cation ratio analysis based on separate rates of leaching for the chemical constituents of desert varnishes , amino acid racemisation based on the decomposition rates of amino acids , optically stimulated luminescence based on the length of time that quartz grains have been removed from sunlight , lichenometry based on lichen growth rates , and micro-erosion analyses based on weathering patterns.

Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly

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Other methods attempt to directly date both petroglyphs and pictographs. Radiocarbon dating of pictographs is the most well known. This requires removing an.

Who made these? What do they mean? When were they created? In modern archaeology there are many methods used to date rock art, but we will discuss a few that have been used in southeast Colorado. There are a couple of over-arching methods archaeologists use to date rock art. The relative dating methods can include seriation, varnish repatination and superimposition. A few of the modern researchers that have utilized these methods in southeast Colorado include; Lawrence Loendorf, Julie Francis, and Ronald Dorn during their studies of rock art on the high plains.

Zier and Kalasz, The method is only valid where manganese is not remobilized after deposition, for example, in most arid environments. Cation-ratio dating is used to date rock surfaces such as stone artifacts and cliff and ground drawings. It can be used to obtain dates that would be unobtainable by more conventional methods such as radiocarbon dating.

Scientists use cation-ratio dating to determine how long rock surfaces have been exposed.

Rock Art of Nevada

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petroglyphs (rock carvings andengravings) andgeomorphic surfaces. In contrast to previous methods of petrogiyph dating, which sought to determine the age of.

The Rock Art. Chaco Canyon abounds in rock art, images made on rock surfaces. Spirals, figures, animals, and other designs can be found at Chaco and throughout the American Southwest, probably serving to mark events, to designate clans and migrations, and as reminders of stories and ceremonies. Images made by pecking or scraping into rock are called petroglyphs; those made by painting pigments on the rock are called pictographs.

Archaeologists seeking to establish when rock art was made use a variety of techniques, none of which is infallible. If there are other structures or artifacts nearby, the age of rock art can be estimated by association.


A new high-tech analysis led by a University of Colorado Boulder researcher shows the oldest known petroglyphs in North America, which are cut into several boulders in western Nevada, date to at least 10, years ago and perhaps even as far back as 14, years ago. The petroglyphs located at the Winnemucca Lake petroglyph site 35 miles northeast of Reno consist of large, deeply carved grooves and dots forming complex designs on several large limestone boulders that have been known about for decades, said CU-Boulder researcher Larry Benson, who led the new effort.

Although there are no people, animals or handprint symbols depicted, the petroglyph designs include a series of vertical, chain-like symbols and a number of smaller pits deeply incised with a type of hard rock scraper. Benson and his colleagues used several methods to date the petroglyphs, including determining when the water level the Winnemucca Lake subbasin — which back then was a single body of water connecting the now-dry Winnemucca Lake and the existing Pyramid Lake — reached the specific elevation of 3, feet.

Rock art currently is dated by relative dating techniques involving the use of tree-​ring dating or radiocarbon dating of structures, artifacts, or soils that cover or.

Official websites use. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites. By: Larry V. On the west side of the Winnemucca Lake subbasin, Nevada, distinctive deeply carved meter-scale petroglyphs are closely spaced, forming panels on boulder-sized surfaces of a partially collapsed tufa mound. The large, complex motifs at this side are formed by deeply carved lines and cupules. A carbonate crust deposited between 10 and calibrated years B.

Petroglyphs above the carbonate crust are carved into a branching form of carbonate that dates to


Dating rock art can be problematic, especially for carvings. We do have indirect evidence to help us, however. Cup-and-ring carved rocks are sometimes found in prehistoric monuments with a known date, and this tells us that the carvings were created before or at the same time as the monuments. Researchers now believe that they were first created in the Neolithic period around years ago.

A petroglyph showing a human face found in. East Timor is dated to the late Pleistocene. It recalls ancient Australian forms and raises the possibility of.

You see them everywhere across the Southwest, symbols from an ancient and mysterious race — spirals, zigzag lines, strange stick figures, a hump-backed flute player. They appear on signs and billboards, fashionable furniture and tee shirts. These images were originally discovered etched in the rocks of canyons and mountains from deep in Mexico to the northern Rockies, from the Pacific to the yawning grasslands of the American prairie.

There are thousands of these rock art sites throughout the Southwest; more than 7, have been cataloged in Utah alone. Archaeologists tell us that they know little about these prehistoric images pecked onto rock surfaces known as “petroglyphs. Dating petroglyphs is uncertain at best, since carbon-dating techniques aren’t effective on rock. Some images can be dated approximately according to their content — one panel of rock art in Canyon de Chelly depicts men on horseback and, therefore, must have been etched sometime after the arrival of the Spaniards and their horses.

Another method of dating petroglyphs is by determining the age of the desert varnish glaze on the rock surface. According to the experts at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico, most petroglyphs date from AD , although some may be as much as 3, years old. Petroglyphs in Wyoming’s Legend Rock have been dated to at least 5, years of age.


All rights reserved. Ancient symbols etched onto the sides of boulders lying along the western edge of a desiccated lake in Nevada are the oldest confirmed rock carvings in North America—possibly dating back to the first peopling of the New World, scientists say. The so-called petroglyphs, carved in soft limestone millennia ago, range from simple lines, pits, and swirls to more complex and ambiguous shapes that resemble diamonds, trees, flowers, and veins in a leaf.

They range from about 8 inches 20 centimeters up to about 3 feet 1 meter in width.

20th century archaeologists and rock art historians focused on pictographs because of their colour and possible stylistic dating. Besides style, seven other mostly.

Ask an Expert. Australia is blessed with many beautiful examples of Aboriginal cave paintings and engravings but what does science tell us about how old they are? What are the different methods used to date such artworks? And what are some of the challenges involved in dating them? Many people will be forgiven for thinking that Australia has some of the oldest rock art in the world, but the truth there is no reliable dating to show this.

Pillans and colleague Keith Fifield have argued that rocks bearing Aboriginal engravings on the Burrup Peninsula have the potential to preserve the engravings for 50, to 60, years, but they have done no direct dating of the engravings themselves.

Powell Petroglyphs