Stones used for pecking petroglyphs, brushes used for applying paint, mortars used to grind pigments and small fireplaces used to change minerals into pigments, these and other objects can link rock art with more typical archaeological materials found in the ground.In that same ground there may be charcoal from a hearth or other organic materials permitting radiocarbon dating.
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And there are other ways of treating rock art as simply one more kind of evidence in archaeology. When none of these kinds of “abolute” dating is available, relative dating may still be possible.
The relative darkness of petroglyphs on a single rock surface may give their relative dates.
Sometimes it is because objects are pictured in the rock art which have been discovered in archaeological excavations, or which are known from ethnography (the study of living cultures, often early records of contact between Europeans and peoples living in some area) In certain very fortunate situations, we know who the people were who created rock art, we even know their names as individuals.
Or we may know the symbols they conventionally used, because they also used these symbols and pictorial conventions when writing their biographies in ledger books -- for example Indian scouts working in the US Army in the 1800’s. Or we may not know the individual who made particular rock art, but we may know that the individual belonged to a cultural group whose rock art consistently used those symbols in particular ways, similar to that in the ledger books.
When we can both assign a date to rock art and identify the present-day descendants of those who made it, we know where their ancestors were at some time in the past.
Then we may have something like the oldest histories in the world.But this works only roughly, because surfaces exposed in different directions and to different weather will form patina at different rates. Though they most often use mineral pigments, they may use an organic “binder” to attach the pigment to the rock surface so it will stay there for a long time.If either pigments or binder contain carbon, they may possibly give a basis for radiocarbon dating.Rock Art, as we use the term here, refers mostly to pictures or symbols left on rock surfaces by members of traditional cultures.Some rock art was created at least 10’s of thousands of years ago, some more recently.Some rock art can be identified with particular “archaeological” cultures, that is, cultures whose typical signatures can be recognized by archaeologists, even if they do not know whether the people who carried that culture have any reasonably direct descendants today.