Rock art in some form has been created in almost every continent of the world. It has been estimated that there are more than 50 million surviving rock art images. Our very remote ancestors may have made ‘art’ objects at an extremely early date, possibly over 700,000 years ago. These include painted and engraved marks on small pieces of bone or stone, although there is considerable debate about whether these marks were intended to be symbolic.
Some of the oldest examples of images deliberately created on fixed rock surfaces date back to the Upper Palaeolithic, around 42,000 years ago. The best known Palaeolithic rock art includes the striking, colourful depictions of animals painted in caves Altamira in Spain, and Chauvet and Lascaux in France. Not all early rock art is in caves, however. Palaeolithic carvings of wild animals have been identified on open-air rock surfaces in Portugal , Spain, Germany and Egypt.
Many other parts of the world are rich in prehistoric rock art, and it is still created or used in certain places today, such as the Kimberley region of Australia. You can read about some of these here.
Rock art is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic traces left by our ancestors. It has been created for thousands of years, and is still produced today in certain parts of the world.
The term rock art refers to human-made marks or images that are deliberately carved, painted, or sculpted on natural rock surfaces.
About a third of all prehistoric rock art known in Britain is found in Scotland. Most of the carvings are on rocks in the open landscape, but some were also used in monuments or re-used in later structures.
Britain and Ireland share a similar tradition of prehistoric carving. In the British Isles, carvings of cup-and-rings, cup-marks, and similar images were engraved on boulders and outcrops in many parts of the landscape.
Rock art is widespread in Europe and very varied, ranging from the Paleolithic Caves of Spain and France, to the Italian Alps, Southern Spain, and of course the Atlantic Art common to many countries in western Europe.
The oldest written reference to rock art in the British Isles dates back to the 19th century. Interest in Britain's rock art has grown over the decades and it is now a well-established academic subject.
Dating rock art is very challenging. For a long time, it was thought that Scotland's prehistoric carvings were about 4000 years old, but recent research shows that they were probably made at least 5000 years ago in the Neolithic period.
What do the symbols mean? This is the question most often asked, but it one of the most difficult questions to answer. There are many theories about rock art's meaning, and you can find out more about what research has revealed in this section.