Hieroglyphs, Petroglyphs, Geoglyphs
Long before the written word was developed as a form of communication, peoples of the world relied on other ways to convey their messages. Verbal communication was and continues to be the primary means for humans to communicate with each other. Written communication evolved much later and over many, many centuries beginning with pictures followed by various forms of the alphabet. Different forms of the alphabet were developed in different parts of the world, including the Latin alphabet on which English is based, and are used today in letters, emails, books, and newspapers. Arabic, German, Greek, Hebrew, and Chinese are some other forms of the alphabet.
Hieroglyphs, petroglyphs and geoglyphs, the earliest forms of written communication, were created many centuries ago and continue to exist in many places throughout the world. Although many of these forms of early pictographic communication have been lost due to harsh weather, erosion and human encroachment or destruction, many of them still exist for us to admire, explore and wonder about their meaning.
Hieroglyphs are pictures that are drawn onto the face of a rock or other surface and stand for an object, sound or idea. The term, used by the early Greeks to describe the Egyptian system of writing, is a compound of two Greek words, hieros for sacred and glyphein for writing. Ancient Egyptians are best known for writing hieroglyphs on papyrus, a form of paper made of reeds. However, early Mayan and Mediterranean cultures also used hieroglyphs. In addition to papyrus, hieroglyphs are also found on other light colored protected surfaces sheltered from the sun, rain and other elements.
Petroglyphs on the other hand are pictures that are carved onto the surface of rock such as sandstone and basalt. Petroglyphs were created when the outer layer of the rock was pecked, incised, chiseled or abraded off to reveal a lighter layer beneath. Because they are carved, petroglyphs are more permanent and last longer than hieroglyphs even when exposed to harsh natural elements. The word petroglyphs is a compound of petro which means rock and glyph which means carving or engraving. The age of petroglyphs can often be determined by the style of carving which changed over the centuries. Some carvings found in New Mexico are thought to have been created in 5000 BC or earlier. Others are determined to be only a couple of centuries old.
The third form of early pictographic communication is geoglyphs (earth pictures), also referred to as intaglios. These large scale ground drawings are generally constructed with stones, stone fragments, gravel or earth. They are created by removing surface rocks, soil or vegetation to reveal lighter underlying earth or by heaping together stones and earth. They depict the outline of animals (zoomorphs) or human-like figures (anthropomorphs) that may be several kilometers longs. They are so large in fact, that they may be recognizable only while flying high enough above the figure to see it in its entirety. The Nazca Lines in Peru, constructed 1500 to 2000 years ago, are thought to be the world’s most famous geoglyphs. These mammoth, but often detailed figures of birds, mammals and zigzag, spiral and triangle geometric shapes measure up to 1.2 miles in length.
These historic ‘glyphs’ left on the face of boulders, rock walls of caves, stone sides of canyons, and rocky ground beneath our feet provide messages about the culture of prehistoric people who lived tens of thousand of years ago. Oftentimes, these ‘glyphs’ provide the only details of a lost culture. Unfortunately, in too many cases, the means has been lost to translate the messages into information that adds to our understanding of the culture.