Rock Art from Around the Globe

Often overlooked or disregarded, historic rock paintings and carvings can be as awe-inspiring as any other form of art. Check out some unique and famous sites from France, Australia and Norway.

by Myasha Nicholas
July 8, 2011
After creating educational activities and other content for the Tutuveni petroglyph site, I have become inspired to learn more about rock art. In different corners of the world over vast stretches of time, rock art has served as forms of communication, record-keeping, and ceremony. Not to be valued less than other art forms or writing systems, petroglyphs, rock paintings and carvings are important to understanding the artist’s world view in an otherwise obscure past.

Here are three amazing rock art sites from from France, Australia and Norway:

Chauvet Cave
Southern France
Shown in the film Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I recently watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog. The footage shows the famous Chauvet Cave which contains the earliest known paintings ever found. Discovered in 1994, the Paleolithic art is in outstanding condition, appearing crisp as if they were created just yesterday. Inside the cave are well preserved expressions of the prehistoric wildlife that lived side-by-side with early man. The artists of this sheltered gallery composed these amazing scenes in awe and respect of these animals.

The paintings record events from nearly 32,000 years ago, a long time before any historical events that we can relate to. Yet after watching the footage, the reincarnation of these scenes adds clarity to the world the artists struggled to live in.

The Panel of Lions is a unique and animated composition in the cave.

In a central recess of the cave, there are a large number of animals which depict a hunt scene: standing out are bison pursued by a pride of sixteen lions. Check out the other panels in the cave.

Today these caves cannot be visited by just anyone. In fact, the famous director Herzog had to be given access by the French minister of culture to be able to film inside. Thankfully, he was able to document these artistic expressions and present them to the world. Imagine if CyArk were able to digitally preserve the pristine cave!

Central Northern Australia
Featured in Archaeology Magazine

Several months ago, Archaeology Magazine released an article on Djulirri, which displays over 15,000 years of recorded Aboriginal history. This site is one of the most animated rock art sites I have heard about, showing brilliant colors and gestures depicting the Australian world. While possessing very ancient paintings from the early stages of Aborigine, the rock art site also has an extensive record of the changing environment, both natural and cultural. For example, there are depictions of many now-extinct animals. There are also records coinciding with the arrival of colonists to Australia. These perspectives of British colonization are important to the archaeological community because they are uniquely seen from Aboriginal's eyes.

A central panel at Djulirri with a red and white emu in the center. Depictions of animals were often shown in an X-ray style, to understand their anatomy. Can you see any kangaroos? There's a boxing match going on.

Interestingly, these panels were educational tools as well. The art was created to study, understand, and record the world as it transformed. These paintings are remarkable. Their vibrancy is maintained through generational "retouching" of the paintings.

Rock carvings at Alta
Northern Norway

Located in the Alta Fjord on the fringes of the Far North (now modern-day Norway), are thousands of paintings and engravings from prehistoric times. Discovered in 1972, the several rock art sites here are of the most impressive in the world.

At Hjemmeluft, near the town of Alta, is the largest rock art site made by hunter/gatherers in Norway. Carved in sandstone and very well preserved, the rock art mainly depicts wild animals and hunting scenes occurring both on land and at sea. It is not surprising that hunter/gatherers would express what they were most concerned about: their next meal.

What appears to be a long ship full of Vikings could be a war canoe or even a fishing boat. This art is exposed to the elements of the Alta Fjord. Some of the carvings are overgrown with lichen or covered with turf.

Explore the World Heritage of Alta

Depictions of pregnant animals.

Depictions of humans hunting wild game from both land and sea.

Without the expressions preserved in the Chauvet Cave, 32,000 years ago would have almost no meaning to us. Even the paintings at Djulirri, which were made much more recently, add an unexpected clarity to history. Although so much time exists between the nameless artists of these three rock sites and us, the stories in the carvings help us visualize the world of our distant ancestors.
The most famous panel in the cave shows four horses done in charcoal. Below the horses are two rhinos in a deadly embrace.