Prehistoric Art

The term prehistoric refers to human history before the development of a written form of language. The end of the prehistoric era is not one specific date but varies by region and as stated by (White 2003) "prehistoric objects are not always of great antiquity." Prehistoric peoples used all of the same basic art production techniques we are familiar with today: painting, additive and subtractive sculpting, pottery, engraving, metalwork, earthwork and architecture. Their works range from enormous megaliths and geoglyphs to tiny carved figures. Prehistoric artists represented the real as well as the imaginary in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional works. These artists created embellished items that were utilitarian and disposable as well as items and images that had ceremonial or religious significance.

Below are examples of three modes prehistoric peoples worked in, two-dimensional painting and engraving, three-dimensional sculpture and large earthworks.

Two-dimensional Painting and Engraving

Petroglyphs at Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico. Compared to the cave painting at Lascaux, most of these works are quite recent, only 300 to 700 years old (Frequently Asked Questions n.d.). However, a small number of images are much older, possibly dating back to 2000 BCE. (What are Petroglyphs and who made them? n.d.) The images were engraved into the surface of large boulders by a method known as pecking. This process involves striking a boulder's surface with a smaller, hand-sized rock, known as a hammerstone to chip off the darkened, weathered surface revealing the lighter color of the interior of the boulder. Finer detail was achieved using two small stones, one striking the other, like a hammer and chisel. These petroglyphs were created primarily by the Pueblo, Apache and Navajo Peoples. The images are characterized by simplified, linear depictions of humans, animals and birds, geometric designs, plants, mythological beings and various other marks. (Rock Art New Mexico n.d.) The area was inhabited by the Pueblo People since before 500 CE but around 1300 CE, the area saw a dramatic increase in population and numerous settlements were established. The Spanish arrived in the area in 1540 and by the late 1600's had established permanent settlements. As the Spanish encouraged adoption of Catholicism and discouraged traditional rituals, the image-making of the Pueblo people declined and some of the meaning of their images was lost (What are Petroglyphs and who made them? n.d.)

Three-dimensional Sculpting

Ivory Carving of Prehistoric Inuit Peoples, Alaska and Siberia The prehistoric Inuit People are classified into two separate but overlapping cultural periods: the Paleoeskimo, from 4500 BCE to 800 BCE and the Neoeskimo, from 1500 BCE to 800 BCE. The surviving art of these cultures is primarily small, portable objects carved out of ivory. Many of these items are embellished everyday, utilitarian objects, such as snow goggles, harpoons and tool handles. Ceremonial or religious objects such as death masks have also been found. Though embellished, these items were regarded as disposable, and were discarded when broken or worn out. These objects have been found in living areas and burial sites. (White 2003) The materials used and the objects themselves speak of the thrift of the Inuit people. As hunters and fishers living in the arctic areas, ivory was an abundant material and objects needed to be portable. As early as 2200 BCE, there is evidence of ivory being carved with iron tools obtained from East Asian, iron-producing civilizations. (White 2003)


Geoglyphs, California Known as the Earth Figure Tradition, this type of art consists of giant depictions of human-like figures, animals and geometric forms created by earth working techniques. The term geoglyph refers to "large-scale arrangements of earth and rocks that form images that are clearly visible only from the air". (White 2003) There are two methods used to create geoglyphs: intaglio and rock alignment. The intaglio method consists of removing darkened, desert-varnished rock to reveal lighter soil below, whereas the rock alignment method consists of creating images by piling rock and occurs where desert-varnish darkening is not present. Geoglyphic sites often contain trails and dance circles indicating frequent ceremonial use. (White 2003)


The search to find the meaning of prehistoric art is and ongoing struggle. Even the contemporary label of "art" applied to prehistoric works ". . . impedes an understanding of the emergence and adaptive value of the earliest representations. . ." (White 2003) As (Stokstad 2008)points out, the meaning images and objects held for their creators cannot be known without the aid of writing. Indeed, even the meaning of contemporary art is incomplete without a critical process. As (Barrett 2000)states, "…artworks call for interpretation" and that the interpretation of art is "ultimately a communal endeavor, and the community is ultimately self-corrective."

Responsibilities of Art Preservation

We feel responsible for preserving the treasures that have survived the years. Sometimes we get into trouble when we combine our enthusiasm with technologies that have a greater reach than we can imagine. The caves at Lascaux are a good example, as the TIME article points out (The Battle to Save the Cave 2006). The desire to preserve something so delicate and precious must be acted upon with extreme caution. The conservation of art is a scientific discipline that must follow strict standards of testing. Over and over people have tried to "restore" works of art only to nearly destroy the original, virtually replacing the original treasure with indelicate interpretations. Other times treasures have nearly been destroyed by what seemed at the time to be completely safe practice. An example of this is the early conservation measures taken on the Dead Sea Scrolls. First of all, as soon as the scrolls were removed from the desert environment that had preserved them for nearly 2000 years, they began to decay. Cracks and tears were mended with "scotch" tape - a modern conservator's nightmare. In an attempt to preserve the delicate writings, the tape was removed and the scrolls flattened and placed between sheets of glass. Unfortunately, after some time that treatment actually caused portions of the scrolls to become gelatinous! (Shor n.d.) We hope that current attempts to conserve the scrolls will keep them stable! As with the measures being taken to conserve the Lascaux paintings, the treatment of the Dead Sea Scrolls is an attempt to halt time to the best of our ability. Documentation is key to being able to share these precious treasures with a distant future.

Works Cited (accessed October 02, 2009).

Barrett, Terry. In Criticizing Art Understanding the Contemporary, 114,119. McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Frequently Asked Questions. (accessed October 2, 2009).

Shor, Pnina. Conservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (accessed 09 30, 2009).

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History Vol. 1. Prentice Hall, 2008.

The Battle to Save the Cave. June 11, 2006.

What are Petroglyphs and who made them? (accessed October 02, 2009).

White, Randall. Prehistoric Art, the symbolic hourney of humankind. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003.