Prehistoric Rock Engravings (From 30,000
In prehistoric art, the term "engraving" usually refers to a drawing made by a sharp tool, lithic flake or sharpened stone on the wall, floor or ceiling of a cave. Good examples include the engraved drawings in the caves of Lascaux, Les Combarelles, Cussac and Trois-Freres. Due to their association with caves, Stone Age engravings are commonly seen as a type of parietal art, rather than a type of open-air rock art, even though archeologists are discovering more and more outdoor sites that contain engraved drawings. A good example is the Upper Paleolithic site at Vila Nova de Foz Coa in northeastern Portugal, which dates back to the era of Gravettian art (c.22,000 BCE). Nearly all the decorated rock shelters in France and Spain contain engravings, and some (Les Combarelles, Cussac) contain only engravings.
To explain the difference between prehistoric engraving, drawing and cave painting, we need to understand the three basic stages in the making of a prehistoric animal picture. First, the outline and basic features are drawn on the cave wall. This is done by scoring the surface of the rock with a sharp implement, or by applying a black outline using manganese pigment or a piece of charcoal. Second, the finished outline of the animal, or its body, may often (but not always) be painted (that is, coloured) with one or more pigments. (See Prehistoric colour palette for details.) Lastly, the drawing or painting may be shaded with black (or another) pigment to enhance its three-dimensional quality. In other words, a cave painting is any picture which is coloured with pigment; a drawing is any unpainted picture; and an engraving is any picture drawn by scoring or incising lines on the wall surface, regardless of whether it is painted or unpainted. (Note: For the world's oldest known parietal art, see: El Castillo Cave Paintings (39,000 BCE).
Figurative engravings - whether or not painted - are the predominant form of cave art throughout the Northern Spain and southern France. They are less famous than the paintings because they are less striking, but they are more numerous. Typically made with a flint or edged stone, the type of engraved mark varied enormously. Most often, the engraver was happy to sketch the outlines of an animal using simple lines. These could be deep and wide or shallow and narrow, according to the softness of the rock surface or the intentions of the artist. Many of the engraved drawings made during the era of Aurignacian art (40,000-25,000 BCE) are now hardly visible, but modern replication techniques reveal that they were far more noticeable when they were first created, as their white-ish lines contrasted strongly with the darker colour of the cave wall. Over time however, the incisions have faded, which perhaps explains the large number of superimpositions of drawings that can be seen in sites of later Magdalenian art, like Lascaux, Les Trois Freres, or Les Combarelles. As far as subject-matter is concerned, most prehistoric engravings are of animals, but two exceptions are worth noting: the extraordinary engraved human figures discovered in the Addaura cave, Monte Pellegrino, in Italy; and the engraved drawing of the "Sorcerer" in the Trois Freres cave, in France.
What's the difference between a prehistoric engraving of a bison, or a relief sculpture of a bison? The answer is, "less than you think". After all, what is a relief except a deep engraving? This is well illustrated by the Gravettian salmon relief at the Abri du Poisson Cave (23,000 BCE) in the Perigord, and by the Solutrean art (c.17,000 BCE) at the Roc-de-Sers Cave near Gachedou in the Charente, where numerous limestone blocks were engraved or sculpted with more than fifty pictures of bison. The actual difference between some of the engravings and reliefs is relatively slight. (See also: Prehistoric Sculpture.)
Cave Engravings (c.70,000 BCE)
Eggshell Engravings (c.60,000 BCE)
Cave Neanderthal Engravings (c.37,000 BCE)
Castanet Engravings (c.35,000 BCE)
Cave Engravings (c.25,000 BCE)
Cave Art (25,000 BCE)
Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE)
Salmon of Abri du Poisson Cave
Valley Engravings, Portugal (c.22,000 BCE)
Pileta Cave (c.18,000 BCE)
Cave (c.17,000 BCE)
Cave (c.17,000-13,000 BCE)
d'Audoubert Bison Relief (c.13,500 BCE)
Freres Cave (c.13,000 BCE)
Les Combarelles Cave (c.12,000
Cave (11,000 BCE)
Peninsula (Murujuga) Rock Art (c.30,000 BCE but unconfirmed)
As the hunter-gatherer Ice Age cultures of the Upper Paleolithic eventually gave way to the warmer and more settled conditions of the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras, Stone Age man abandoned his caves and his cave art for ever.
The glaciers of the north began to disappear while vast forests covered the European steppes. A milder more humid temperature succeeded the rigorous cold. The great mammals on which man lived, emigrated or disappeared. Man began to prefer living on the shores of lakes, rivers and the sea, bringing his dwelling places more and more out into the open. He made new tools for fishing and sea hunting. Other than his new interest in mobiliary art, his artistic work was limited to drawings, and to "Alphabetiform" signs on shields.
Only in certain areas did the tradition of figurative engraving persist, and only at open air sites. The most famous of these sites exemplify the traditions of early African art throughout the continent of Africa. Engraving techniques varied from area to area, but in addition to the earlier flint or sharpened stone methods, Neolithic artists hammered out their markings and lines with a little hard stone, creating thousands of tiny peck-marks in order to engrave the required image. Many images, especially those left undecorated with colour pigments, have since lost their sharpness as their original lines have long since merged into the same colour as the surrounding rock.
Tassili-n-Ajjer (Algeria, N Africa)
Sydney Rock Engravings (NSW,
Australia) (c.5,000 BCE)
Dabous Giraffe Engravings (Agadez,
Niger, Africa) (c.4,000 BCE)
Niola Doa (Beautiful Ladies)
(Ennedi, Chad, Africa) (c.3,000 BCE)
For more information about Stone Age engraved drawings, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE