Venus of Berekhat Ram
The Venus of Berekhat Ram is a pebble found at Berekhat Ram on the Golan Heights in the summer of 1981 by archaeologist N. Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. An article by Goren-Inbar and S. Peltz (1995) claims it has been modified to represent a female human figure, identifying it as a possible artefact made by Homo erectus of the later Acheulean, in the early Middle Paleolithic. The term "Venus" follows the convention for labelling the unrelated Venus figurines of the Upper Paleolithic. The claim is contested.
The base object is an anthropomorphic red tufic pebble, 35 mm (1.4 in) long, which has had at least three grooves, possibly incised on it by a sharp-edged stone. One is a deep groove that encircles the narrower, more rounded end of the pebble, two shallower, curved grooves run down the sides. These grooves can be interpreted as marking the neck and arms of a figure. They closely resemble marks made in similar material by sharp-edged tools during exercises in experimental archaeology.
The claim that the pebble has been incised to represent a human figure has been questioned in three ways:
- Whether the scratched marks were made by humans/hominids at all.
- If they were, whether they had any representational intent.
- If they did, whether they were intended to represent a female figure.
It is disputed whether these can be clearly distinguished from naturally-created lines. In 1997 American researcher Alexander Marshack argued using microscopic analysis that the grooves around the "neck" and down the "arms" were human made. However Steven Mithen in 1999 argued that Marshack's arguments "do not demonstrate that the lines are indeed intentional and that if they were that they were intended to represent a female figure". He took the view that research was yet to be done to determine whether "scoria found in non-archaeological contexts" could "carry incisions that might be confused with stone tools"
It remains uncertain whether or not the pebble has been modified by human action. If it has, there is the separate question of whether the scratches had any artistic or symbolic intent, and if so, whether they sought to make the object resemble the female form, as do the much later and rather different Venus figurines of the Upper Palaeolithic.
In 2000 d'Errico and Nowel argued that the incisions could be reliably identified as human-made, but a practical function related to tool-making could not be ruled out: "the use of different types of raw materials to produce a varied tool kit seems well documented." However some of the abrasions "are not necessarily consistent with a functional use of the object", suggesting that symbolic intent is a serious possibility. They conclude that it is "problematic" to identify a human body, as the cognitive and cultural context is so alien, saying that probably there will never be any agreement about what was intended by the marks.
Because it was found between two layers of ash, it has been dated by tephrochronology to at least 230,000 years before the present. If the artifact was intended to replicate a female figure, it would be the earliest example of representational art in the archaeological record. Rather than being made by modern humans, it would have been made by Homo erectus, hunter-gatherers and Acheulean tool users. There is some other evidence of an aesthetic sensibility during the period although compelling examples do not appear in the archaeological record until the emergence of modern humans around 50,000 years ago.
- Goren-Inbar, N and Peltz, S, 1995, "Additional remarks on the Berekhat Ram figure," Rock Art Research 12, 131-132, quoted in Scarre, C (ed.) (2005). The Human Past, (London: Thames and Hudson). ISBN 0-500-28531-4.
- Paul Bahn, A very short introduction to Archaeology, Oxford University Press, 2000, pages 44-45.
- Steven Mithen in Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar, Chris Knight, Camilla Power, The evolution of culture: an interdisciplinary view, Edinburgh University Press, 1999, p.152.
- d'Errico, F. and Nowell, A, 2000, "A new look at the Berekhat Ram figurine: implications for the origins of symbolism", Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10, 123-67.
- Venus Figures from the Stone Age: Russia, Ukraine, and East of the Donau Mouth Picture of the pebble (top).
- Israel Antiquities Authority National Treasures page