Deciphering Rock Art

rock art negev desert

How to Decipher Rock Art?

Deciphering Rock Art may be a  complicated task but not impossible! Simple guidelines can lead you on the right path. Your initial assumptions will steer you beyond the portrayed rock art scene. As a first rule adopt this view, rock art is not art imitating life; it is a visual record of religious beliefs practiced long ago and not an expression of daily life.  Although it may sound like an overstatement, a supposedly simple rock art deciphering requires a knowledge of many regional subjects such as Archeology, Astronomy, Mythology, History, and Religion. Beware that without a solid background, you may go astray deciphering your rock art. When assessing a rock art erase the modern bias, don’t judge the rock art primitive childish expression. Adopt the following assumptions that form guidelines for deciphering:

A general rule:  “All rock art are linked to heavens – either directly or through myths”.

     • Rock art describes a heavenly story.
     • Hunting scenes are cosmic struggles.
     • Rock art is sacred and belongs to the realm of faith.

1. Understand the historical background

Rock Art just didn’t sprout out of thin air! It has deep roots in the region pre-history and usually attempts to answer life big questions. So, study them! Collect regional anecdotes and myths and even look for their continuation nowadays (see Santa and ibex connection).  Each rock art hides a story that extends beyond the visual impression, so dig into its regional history and find it! It will never be what you see at first sight,  so remove the misleading visual layers from your first guess to unravel its true meaning.

2. Classify your rock art

Combine similar rock art scenes or repeating patterns into categories suggested here. I found repetitive symbols such as (sun, moon, boat, fish, ibex, weapon, … etc)  or even complete scenes (creation, fertility, hunt .. etc) that can help you to assess the engraved rock art intent. I define them as rock art categories, listed here with a clickable  link to read more:

Calendar engravings
Seasonal drawings of constellations
Hunting scenes depicting imaginary struggles
Regional Mythology   
The Sun journey myth

For an effective deciphering, frame your rock art into the suggested guidelines or find a new one. Search in your rock art collection for a connection to astronomy or major popular myth from ancient times. It may be a full story such as (Creation)  or just an idea like a  (Heavenly Gates).

3. Find a connection to Astronomy

Sky worship is apparent in ancient religious expressions, be it a burial site, a tomb, rock art, or early script. When deciphering a rock art pay attention to small details such as dots that may represent a star or a constellation. Look for orientation, patterns of lines, dots, squares, circles, and more, don’t ignore them! If you find some pattern it is probably an important counting mechanism such as the Moon calendar or other calendar markings.

The Sun and the Moon and Equinox, Solstice days are very important. They are the old astronomical clocks setting life rhythm in every culture and therefore became major symbols and yearly events in ancient times.  In this respect, look for a connection to annual seasonal stars and constellations appearance since they are celebrated in every culture.

4. Find a connection to Myth

In rock art, we find traces of myths with an astronomical bond. Before the invention of writing, the transmission of wisdom and knowledge carried by oral tradition. Myths conveyed oral ancient wisdom and at the ripe time, rock art replaced them followed by a script or fully written story. Myths are connected to creation, fertility, seasons, natural forces and other natural wonders are all a milestone in every ancient culture, so look for them in your rock art.


 See examples of deciphered rock art at our Articles section and much more in my book Rock Art in Israel available online.

Copyright © All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of  israelrockart.com 

Yehuda Rotblum 2019


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One Comment to Deciphering Rock Art

  1. Janet Masters says:

    Great article.

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