Cave Art and Petroglyphs

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Painting a cave
Cave Painting
Rock Art
Cave painting and Petroglyphs

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NOTE TO THE TEACHER     In recent surveys about science education in the United States, scientists voiced sad opinions not only of the rapid demise of science labs in college and precollege schools, but also on the demises of the arts and music. This webpage is designed to wed art with science and social studies. Please take this opportunity to be as multidisciplinary as possible. In this art/science project are tidbits of geology, engineering, geography, history and prehistory, social studies and different cultures, paleobiology, learning to work together, wood working, ...


    In both your school's library and your locality's public library there are books on cave art and petroglyphs. ("petroglyph": "petro" = rock; "glyph" = symbol) Here are some questions that can be your study guide:

  1. On which continents and in which countries are most of the ancient cave paintings found?
  2. On which continents and in which countries are most of the ancient petroglyphs found? If you live near any ancient rock paintings either in caves or on cliff faces, go with some of your friends and photograph the ancient writings. Don't forget to put your smiling faces in the picture when the camera is clicked! Then return and show the pictures to your class.
  3. What are the themes of the various ancient rock paintings? Are they about hunting, religious things, or how the people lived?
  4. Why do you think the ancient people did this art work? Were they "tagging" their territories, or did they do it just because humans like to mark up blank walls?! Or was there a better reason?
  5. What are the names of the ancient peoples who did this art work? Were any of them Neanderthals? Were some of them cavemen? What about Native Americans? If Neanderthals are a type of extinct human, what are we current humans called? (Hint: the word starts with "C". Although the argument is still not settled, it is probable that both Neanderthals and modern humans were both Homo sapiens.)
  6. What methods did the ancient people use to make their cave paintings and petroglyphs? (Did they use pens and pencils, brushes and paint, chisels, or what sorts of instruments? How did they make their handprints? [There are two types of hand prints - one with a colored print, and the other where the coloring is all around the hand.])
  7. Why do you think this ancient art work has lasted all these thousands and thousands of years. (Don't say that it is just because they made their art on stone. If you visit your local cemetery, you will see that the writing on the oldest tombstones is often barely legible. So-, merely writing on stone is NOT the whole answer! But really smart students know which kind of stone is best for preserving pictures, and it is NOT marble or granite!)


    Before planning what you are going to "paint" or "draw" on your rock wall, you should start making your rock wall! Since the wall will take several days to set, you should make it first and while it is setting, you can do your planning. You will not be using a real rock wall because that would be a little to heavy to move around. So you will be making an imitation rock wall by coating a piece of plywood with a type of concrete called stucco. (Many young people like to work with concrete because of its amazing property of being a watery mix of sand and simple chemicals, which then harden into something very hard and rocky like a sidewalk or street. The invention of concrete by the Romans was one of the most important inventions in history. Just look around as you go home from school: see all the things made of concrete - even the mortar holding bricks together is a type of concrete, cinder blocks and most of today's bridges - probably even the walls of your home (plaster is a type of concrete). Did you know that some boats are made of concrete [they won't burn, rot or rust], and recently an experimental airplane was concrete?) Anyway, here is how to make yourself a small section of imitation rock wall:

  1. You will need to get three types of items:
    1. You will need a piece of rough "exterior" plywood that is about 1/2 inch thick and 3 feet x 4 feet. (You want rough plywood so that the stucco will cling to it better. If you can get the plywood with lots of holes in it, that is even better!) (TEACHER: oftentimes the managers of home improvement stores will give schools small amounts of free materials for classroom use. So ask the store manager directly. They might even cut the wood for you. Bevel the edges of the plywood with a wood file to prevent future splintered fingers.
    2. Stucco baseAlso get 4 ft long pieces of 2x4, and nail your plywood onto the 2x4's as shown in the diagram to the right. (The 2x4's will stiffen the plywood so that when the finished panels are moved around, the stucco won't crack as much as if the plywood could flex.)
    3. A gallon of stucco. (In an out-of-the-way spot, the students should lay the plywood down flat on a lot of newspapers and then spread the stucco on with cardboard spreaders. The smoother they spread it, the easier it will be to draw on it. Remember that concretes clean up very easily before they set - but do it in a large bucket of water and not at a sink unless you want the maintenance staff to throw you to the lions for clogging up their sinks with sand! Just splash the bucket full of rinse water outside on the playground or even in the grass (grass likes the lime in cement!).
    4. Alternative to stucco: You might want to use wallboard joint compound rather than stucco. The main difference between the two is that joint compound is water soluble after hardening, while stucco, once hard, resists water.
  2. Allow the stucco to set for several days - or over a weekend.
  3. Test the portability of your imitation rock wall. (From now on, try to keep the "wall" flat - don't stand it on edge because the stucco might come loose from the plywood and slide off.)


    The ancient ones were making pictures that showed some aspect of their lives. Your group should decide on some common aspect of your life, and then make simple drawings that show it. See if you can imitate the ancient ones in the simplicities of their designs, and remember that you must use their methods to apply your pictures to your "rock wall" and that means only the colors your teacher gives you (see color hint below).


  1. Color Hint: Cave and cliff artists didn't have very many colors to work with. Mostly they use charcoal and powdered rocks that were mixed with some sort of bonding agent. It is suggested that your bonding agent be egg white. Of course, charcoal sticks can be used as well as rouge scraped out of a cosmetic compact. The charcoal can either be used alone, or mixed into egg white. Mix the rouge into egg white (brush-on powdered rouge would likely mix in best). An alternative red would be red clay if you have that in your area. Yellow was another common color used by the ancients. If you can find some yellow clay, that should work nicely when slurried into the egg white. Blues might have been used by the ancient ones, but blue is not a color that lasts very long - usually disappearing in a year or so. So don't even bother trying to use blue. (The ancient ones presumably crushed pretty colored rocks into a powder. [A finely ground rock powder is called "rouge."] Rouges are used today to "paint faces", as tints in paints, and for polishing surfaces. However, it is unlikely that any teachers will want to have a classful of students hammering away at rocks. Think of the mayhem and the eye goggles needed, smashed fingers, tears, and mess!)
  2. Application hints:
    1. Initially you will want to trace your drawings onto your wall. This can be done by lightly outlining your subjects with charcoal. They can later be painted in
    2. Brushes can be made by taking green sticks and pounding their ends with a rock or hammer so that they become very frayed. Feathers also make brushes.
    3. The ancients used two ways for painting. Let's use a hand as an example:
      1. They could place their hand against the wall and paint around it either by outlining their hand with a paint brush, or they sometimes blew charcoal dust out of a straw at their hand against the wall leaving a white shadow of their hand on the wall.
      2. Or they would simply paint a hand on the wall (or put paint on their hand and print their hand on the wall)

For an anthology of Cave Painting references:

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