Monday, November 15, 2010


Petroglyph, n.
Cultural Anthropol. and Archaeol.
[comb. form1 + GLYPH n., probably after HIEROGLYPH n.PETROGRAPH n.]
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A rock carving, esp. a prehistoric one.

1854 G. R. GLIDDON in J. C. Nott Types of Mankind III. iii. 686 The petroglyphs of these three dynasties,..are now preserved for posterity, so long as the pyramids of Geezeh shall endure. 1870 Athenæum 12 Feb. 233 In addition to these petroglyphs there are menhirs, cairns, and duns, while crannoges occur in most of the lochs. 1926 Bulletin 26 June 12/3 This theory was confirmed by the rude petroglyphs they passed, picture phrases chiselled in the rock. 1952 V. G. CHILDE New Light on Most Anc. East ii. 23 Petroglyphs, like microliths, attest hunting over many areas now uninhabitable.

So what's new in ancient rock art? I've come across 3 stories lately:

Neolithic rock art near Jubbah, Saudi Arabia (1st image)
This photo is featured on the National Geographic website as an example of new GigaPan technology that stitches thousands of closeup images into panoramas of 1,000-megapixel resolution. The result is an image that is ultra-zoomable (click on it to try it). Rock art expert Sandra Olsen of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh has teamed up with photographer Richard T. Bryant to document the ancient petroglyphs of Saudi Arabia. Olsen explains, "You can take a composite image of an entire cliff face and zoom in on a single grain of sand. You can see incredible details. It's a fantastic tool for spatial analysis. You can see which images overlie others and see the relationships between scenes—even while sitting in your own office. If you want to study how a petroglyph was made, sometimes there is an advantage to coming across images that were stopped in mid-creation," she said. "That's something that I didn’t observe initially because our time at the site was limited, and I didn't have time to do that kind of analysis. Instead I'm doing it on the computer."

Neolithic sandstone etching near Over, Cambridgeshire, England
(2nd image)
This rock carved with concentric circles was found at the bottom of a quarry by a participant in a continuing education course offered by the University of Cambridge. Susie Sinclair reveals, ''I'm an accidental archaeologist so I didn't know what it was. It's really quite a beautiful object and amazing to think someone did this 4,500 years ago. Everyone who has seen it has interpreted it differently. It's a talking point whether it's a piece of art or a meaningless doodle. Some people think it is a pair of eyes or a map. I think it's more than just a doodle and I hope one day we'll find out.''

Neolithic underwater etchings near Manaus, Brazil (3rd image)
Extremely low water levels due to drought revealed these images of faces and snakes to a man fishing the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon river. The petroglyphs were photographed before they again disappeared under the water so that researchers could study the images. Eduardo Neves, president of the Brazilian Society of Archaeology, notes that the etchings were undeniable evidence that the region was occupied in ancient times by a significant number of people: "There has always been this idea that the Amazon was empty. The truth is that this hypothesis is not correct. In many parts of the Amazon we now have proof of settlements."

In an interesting sidenote, compare the description of the Cambridgeshire petroglyph as the Stone Age version of "a modern office worker's scribbles on a post-it note" to this headline regarding an exhibit about ancient writing that suggests, "Ancient tweets were made in stone and clay."

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