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Rock engravings or petroglyphs (in Europe)

Rock engravings or petroglyphs are figures and symbols engraved (scratched, chopped, hammered) in rocks. The oldest petroglyphs can most likely be placed in the Upper Paleolithic (the last part of the Old Stone Age that ended about 12,000 years ago). We also encounter them in the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), Neolithic (New Stone Age), Bronze Age and Iron Age. We also find them in subsequent historical times. In prehistoric times, these engravings would probably often be colored red with ochre after scratching or carving.

petrogliefen Noorwegen
rock engravings Norway
Image 1. Rock engravings can be seen in a number of places along 'Oldtidsveien', the antiquity road, between Skjeberg and Fredrikstad in the province of Østfold in southern Norway. They date from the Bronze Age.

Nowadays they are often colored red again to make them more visible for the public. The rock engravings can be found in many places in Europe, from Spain and Portugal in the west to the Black Sea area in the east. We also find them in Scandinavia in the far north of Europe and on islands in the Mediterranean Sea. There are also many sites elsewhere in the world.

rock engravings Kelleys Island Lake Erie USA
Image 2. About 300-400 years ago, the native Americans of Ohio left numerous inscriptions on this glacier-worn rock near Kelleys Island in Lake Erie, near the Canadian border. Today the inscriptions have been almost completely erased by weathering. However, the plaque on the fence around this rock, known as Inscription Rock, clearly shows which figures were made by hammering/tapping. The meaning of these petroglyphs, like those on many other places, is unknown.

In the course of time, rocks that have been smoothed by glacial ice during the ice ages have always been ideal for making engravings. It is not entirely clear why people created these petroglyphs. They may have a religious meaning. We will take a closer look at three petroglyph sites in Europe:

petrogliefen Dyreberget Noorwegen
rock engravings Dyreberget Norway
Image 3. About 9,000 years ago all kinds of animal figures were carved on the rocks smoothed by the ice along the Tysfjord in the Norwegian province of Nordland. For example, we find the reindeer, the bear, the orca, the hare, the swan and the moose. This Animal Rock is known in Norway as Dyreberget.

Alta (Norway)

South of the town of Alta, in northern Norway, we find rocks that have been smoothed by glaciers during the glacial periods and on which large numbers of rock petroglyphs occur. The oldest of these petroglyphs are about 6,000 years old. The youngest are about 2,000 years old. We find all kinds of animals on these rocks, such as the bear, the reindeer, the moose, birds and fish. We also find engravings of people, such as people on skis and with bows and arrows. There are also petroglyphs of enclosures into which reindeer were herded. The petroglyphs are made by punching small holes in the rock.

rock engravings Alta Norway
rock engravings Alta Norway
Image 4. Petroglyphs on rocks south of Alta in the Norwegian province of Finnmark in the north of the country. At the bottom (center) you can see reindeer with unborn calves in their bellies. At the bottom on the right you can see that the petroglyphs were made by punching small holes in the rock.

Val Camonica (Italy) 

The Val Camonica is an approximately 70 kilometer (about 44 miles) long valley in the Italian province of Brescia, in the Lombardy region. In this valley in the Alps we find large numbers of petroglyphs, on rocks smoothed by the glacial ice. About 140,000 of these have currently been mapped, but the total number is estimated at more than twice that number. The oldest engravings in this valley must be about 9,000 years old. In the following millennia, their numbers increased significant. After the Iron Age (in Roman times and in the Middle Ages) they were still made on the rocks to a limited extent (mainly hammered). We find human figures in all kinds of shapes, horses and chariots, animals and various symbols.

Vallée des Merveilles (France) 

The Vallée des Merveilles is located in the Alpes Maritimes (Marine Alps) in the border area between France and Italy near Mont Bégo. Here we find about 40,000 rock engravings. These engravings are also made on rocks smoothed by the glaciers. We also find engravings in other valleys in the area. Most of these petroglyphs date from the Bronze Age. They were carved into the rock with stone tools. Later - from Gallo-Roman times until our own time - petroglyphs were also carved into the rocks. On the rocks we see cattle, agricultural implements such as plows and harrows, weapons (daggers, halberds, etc.), people and geometric figures.

rock engravings Sweden
rock engravings Sweden
Image 5. In Uppland, Sweden, petroglyphs also occur on rocks worn down by glaciers. They date from the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

Text and pictures: Jan Weertz
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