Petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (drawings or painting on rock) are collectively referred to as “rock art.”

Petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (drawings or painting on rock) are collectively referred to as “rock art.” The first example of rock art reported in South Carolina was a petroglyph discovered in Greenville County in 1979. In 1983 two additional carvings were reported, one each in Lexington and Oconee Counties. Ultimately, these early reports were the catalyst for a survey conducted by the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina to search for and record other examples of rock art in the state. The survey was begun in 1996 and resulted in the discovery of forty-four additional petroglyph sites, thirty-three portable carvings, and three pictographs.

Rock art has been discovered in Kershaw, Lexington, and Richland Counties, but the great majority occurs in Greenville, Laurens, Oconee, Pickens, and Spartanburg Counties. There is little rock amenable to the carving of petroglyphs on the coastal plain, and no rock art has been recorded there.

A petroglyph site may contain one or several hundred carvings. Most of the carvings are highly eroded, difficult to see, and therefore hard to find. Although far from conclusive, data indicate that the optimum locations where prehistoric petroglyphs may occur are two vastly different landforms. One is westward-oriented bald rock near mountain crests, and the other is on or near the mountain foothills, where petroglyphs are found near streams and springs.

Petroglyph motifs on the two landforms differ consistently. The lowland petroglyphs are much more varied in form than those found near mountain crests. Petroglyphs near mountain crests are predominately circles, boldly carved, variable in size, and often asymmetrical. A few have radiating lines in a sunburst manner. Occasionally a triangle or square is carved among the circles, but the great majority are circles without any elaboration. Petroglyphs found on the foothills sites vary from simple circles to complex geometric and abstract forms. Several petroglyphs that might be construed as anthropomorphic (representing humans) have been recorded, but only a single carving has been found that clearly represents the human form. Two zoomorphic (representing animals) petroglyphs, perhaps representing deer or buffalo, have been recorded. Historic rock art is widespread and usually consists of modern graffiti, carved initials, names, and dates.

Modern graffiti is abundant, but only three pictograph sites believed to be prehistoric have been discovered in South Carolina. The fact that they survive is probably because they are located in rock shelters that have protected them from the elements. Drawn with red and orange ochre, the drawings at each site are different. One consists of simple circles, another has eight animal figures, and one has a sun-circle with seven radiating lines and animal-like figures drawn at the end of each line.

The ages of South Carolina’s prehistoric rock art have not been established. Not amenable to radiocarbon dating, their cultural placement remains speculative. The oldest historic rock art in the state dates to the late eighteenth century.

Charles, Tommy. “The Rock Art of South Carolina.” In The Rock-Art of Eastern North America, edited by Carol Diaz-Granados and James R. Duncan. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Petroglyphs
  • Author Tommy Charles
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date March 30, 2020
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date June 20, 2016
  • Date of Last Update August 1, 2017