21 December 2012


Welcome back. In the dark years BI (Before Internet), it was not uncommon to learn of interesting phenomena by chance or not at all. Although a university coworker twice went off to support a privately funded effort to photograph archeological sites with cameras carried by balloons, airfoils and ground devices, it was only when associates from another university assisted a similar venture that I heard about the Nazca Lines in Peru.

Lacking time to conduct a literature search, I never advanced from hearing to learning about those geoglyphs, despite having one of the finest library systems within walking distance.

Years later, Internet at the ready, I still marvel at seeing a note about a geoglyph in Russia and being able to zip to geoglyphs around the world.

What Are Geoglyphs?

If you’re not familiar with geoglyphs, just imagine designs drawn on the earth’s surface, some relatively small, some huge. Some were made by removing the surface cover, others by adding stones or other material, and still others using both approaches. Some, like the Nazca Lines, are ancient; some, like Northumberlandia in England, are modern art. Alas, none was created by extraterrestrials, friendly or otherwise.

Nazca Lines

The spider may be Nazca’s smallest
geoglyph, about 150 feet. The largest
is about 935 feet. (photo from
Peru’s Nasca Lines are in an area of about 175 square miles on an arid coastal plain, 250 miles south of Lima. Hundreds of figures include some 70 depictions of living creatures (spider, monkey, birds), flora (flowers, trees), deformed or fantastic figures and everyday objects. Straight lines crisscross, forming geometric figures, and other lines radiate from or encircle promontories. 

Study and comparison with art forms suggest the geoglyphs are divided into three periods, the oldest, 500-300 BC, the most recent, 200 BC-500 AD. High on the list of theories as to why ancient people would make drawings so large they could only be recognized from above are religious and astronomical interpretations.

Other Geoglyphs

The Nazca Lines are the most famous geoglyphs, yet there are thousands more around the world. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, alone, over 5000 have been recorded. The smallest there is only a few feet long, but one, the Atacama Giant, is over 280 feet and dates to approximately 900 AD.

White Horse of Uffington geoglyph.
(NASA World Wind image)

One of the oldest geoglyphs, the White Horse of Uffington, is about 345 feet long and thought to have been carved into the chalk hills near Oxfordshire, England, around 1000 BC. 

An interesting mix of thousands of geoglyph-like features, extending from Syria to Yemen, has been labeled “The Works of the Old Men.” First reported by pilots in the 1920s, the stone-built structures are ancient and seemingly campsites or remains of functions other than artwork, though I bow to the experts.

The geoglyph recently reported in Russia’s Ural Mountains is a deer- or elk-like stone structure about 900 feet. The style of stone-working on one artifact dates it to the Neolithic and Eneolithic (6th to 3rd millennia BC), which, if confirmed, would make the geoglyph much older than Peru's Nazca Lines.


More and more geoglyphs are being discovered through analysis of aircraft and satellite images, especially since the availability of these images through Google Earth; however, field documentation by specialists is essential.

How thrilled I was 40 years ago to find an extensive layout of buried pyramids and related structures on a handful of stereoscopic aerial photographs I’d obtained from a Mexican organization for a study of crops. What a downer to be advised that they already had too many such sites to investigate.

Perhaps it will be like that with geoglyphs if it isn’t already. Thanks for stopping by.


-Wikipedia write-up on geoglyphs:
-UNESCO World Heritage Site description of Nazca Lines:
-Short descriptions of “top ten geoglyphs”:
-Write up on Atacama Desert geoglyphs:
-Journal of Archaeological Science paper on Works of the Old Men: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440311001907
-Antiquity review of Russian geoglyph:
-Washington Post article on Northumberlandia:

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