Ancient Rock Art… and I Don’t Mean The Beatles

People are always studying communication, trying to decipher how others from ancient times communicated with one another. Early visual communication is a particularly interesting and mysterious form of communication to study. The origin of visual communication dates back to various places and times in ancient history but I will focus this post on rock art.

By Jenna White

Modern day example of an ideogram courtesy of creative commons

Modern day example of an ideogram courtesy of creative commons

Ideograms and Pictographs

Ideograms and pictographs are both important parts of early visual communication. Both ideograms and pictographs convey meaning through a picture. Ideograms are visual symbols carved or written on a surface that intends to communicate an entire idea. This can be seen in modern day society in the form of road signage, such as a symbol of a plane that shows someone the way to the airport (Ayiter, n.d.). A pictograph is a form of ideogram where the symbol specifically represents the physical object that the illustration resembles. This can also be seen in modern day road signs, specifically in the animal crossing ones. A picture of a deer quite literally means that deer may potentially try and cross the road during the listed distances (Ayiter, n.d.).

Early Visual Communication in British Columbia

BC has been inhabited by Aboriginals approximately for the past 14,000 years, plenty of time for the Aboriginals to develop and use visual communication all around the province. In BC there are over 500 different sites of ancient visual communication, in the form of rock art, that have been discovered (British Columbia [BC], 2012). Rock are it writing on rocks that is done through carving or by painting. The locations of the rock art tend to be chosen with upmost care. Rock art is normally found in a place of significance, power or mystery for Aboriginal people. The rock art is often on or near a unique natural formation such as a waterfall or a cave (BC, 2012). Rock art was used to record special events such as coming of age ceremonies, personal and spiritual experiences or as markers of burial sites. Rock art was also used to define hunting and fishing boundaries between tribes (BC, 2012).

Petroglyph near Port Alberni, BC courtesy of creative commons


Petroglyphs are one of the most common forms of ancient rock art remains found in BC. Petroglyphs are rock carvings that are meant to convey a story. Petroglyphs in BC were made by Aboriginals using stone tools to engrave ideograms and pictograms upon a particular rock surface (Saul, 2004). Petroglyphs are not unique to BC; they can be found all over the world dating back 10,000 years (Saul, 2004). The petroglyphs in BC have proven difficult to date but some have been found to be as old as 3,000 years. Petroglyph rock art tends to be found near water and at or below sea level. They primarily can be found in areas that are only exposed and accessible once the tide is out (BC, 2012).

Pictograph near Terrace, BC courtesy of creative commons


Pictographs are one of the other common forms of ancient rock art found in BC. Pictographs are pictures that are painted onto rocks using pigments that come from powdered minerals (BC, 2012). Something painted on sounds to be much less durable than something carved, but this is not the case. Aboriginals sealed their pictographs with either animal fat or fish eggs, which adheres the painting to the rock for immense lengths of time (BC, 2012). Unlike Petroglyphs, pictographs are largely found well above sea level and away from any potential water damage (BC, 2012).


Protection of BC Rock Art

Rock art in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs are always in danger of being destroyed. Human violation is the number one risk towards rock art sites. While rock art is protected by BC law, it is up to the individual members of society to educate themselves and realize the importance of these early visual communication artifacts and strive to leave the sites unharmed. Not only does rock art suffer from human violation, erosion plays a part in the deterioration of these examples of ancient visual communication, threatening their survival. People are still researching a more permanent solution to the preservation of rock art ensuring that these rock carvings and paintings will be around for many more generations to experience.

Interesting Links

There are many other websites touching on ancient forms of visual communication. I focused on art rock found in BC as it is most relevant us as a class. The following websites have proved interesting as they look into the Egyptian’s early visual communication which most people recognize as hieroglyphics:


Ayiter, A. (n.d.). The History of Visual Communication. Retrieved May 14, 2012, from

British Columbia. (2012). Petroglyphs in British Columbia. Retrieved May 14, 2012, from

Saul, S. (2004). Picture Writing. Retrieved May 14, 2012, from


3 thoughts on “Ancient Rock Art… and I Don’t Mean The Beatles

  1. I thought this was really well done. Your title was fun and made me want to read more. Nice layout as well 🙂

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