A Venus figurine is any Upper Paleolithic statuette portraying a woman with exaggerated physical features. Most have been unearthed in Europe, but others have been found as far away as Siberia, extending their distribution across much of Eurasia.
Most of them date from the Gravettian period (28,000–22,000 years ago), but examples exist as early as the Venus of Hohle Fels, which dates back at least 35,000 years to the Aurignacian, and as late as the Venus of Monruz, from about 11,000 years ago in the Magdalenian.
These figurines were carved from soft stone (such as steatite, calcite or limestone), bone or ivory, or formed of clay and fired. The latter are among the oldest ceramics known. In total, over a hundred such figurines are known; virtually all of modest size, between 4 cm and 25 cm in height. They are some of the earliest works of prehistoric art.
Most of them have small heads, wide hips, and legs that taper to a point. Various figurines exaggerate the abdomen, hips, breasts, thighs, or vulva. In contrast, arms and feet are often absent, and the head is usually small and faceless. They may have served a ritual or symbolic function.
The expression 'Venus' was first used in the mid-nineteenth century by the Marquis de Vibraye, who found a figurine in his garden in the Dordogne, near Laugerie-Basse in the Vezere valley. He called it "Venus Impudica", alluding to the Venus Pudica by Michelangelo.
The use of the name is unsubstantiated, there is no link between the figurines and the Roman goddess Venus. The term has has been criticised for being more a reflection of modern western ideas than reflecting the beliefs of the sculptures' original owners, but the name has persisted.
History of discovery
The first Upper Paleolithic representation of a woman was discovered about 1864 by the Marquis de Vibraye, at Laugerie-Basse (Dordogne, France), where initial archaeological surveys had already been undertaken; Vibraye named his find the Vénus impudique, a knowing contrast to the "modest" Venus Pudica Hellenistic type, the most famous of which is the Medici Venus. The Magdalenian "Venus" from Laugerie-Basse is headless, footless, armless but with a strongly incised vaginal opening. Another example of such a figure being discovered and recognised was the Venus of Brassempouy, found by Édouard Piette in 1894 (but not originally labelled as a "Venus").
Four years later, Salomon Reinach published a group of steatite figurines from the caves of Balzi Rossi. The famous Venus of Willendorf was excavated in 1908 in a loess deposit in the Danube valley, Austria. Since then, hundreds of similar figurines have been discovered from the Pyrenees to the plains of Siberia. They are collectively described as "Venus" figurines in reference to the Roman goddess of beauty, Venus, since the prehistorians of the early 20th century assumed they represented an ancient ideal of beauty. Early discourse on "Venus" figurines was preoccupied with identifying the race being represented; and the steatopygous fascination of Saartjie Baartman, the "Hottentot Venus" exhibited as a living ethnographic curiosity to connoisseurs in Paris early in the nineteenth century.
In September 2008, archaeologists from the University of Tübingen discovered a 6 cm figurine woman carved from a mammoth’s tusk, the Venus of Hohle Fels, dated to at least 35,000 years ago, representing the earliest known sculpture of this type, and the earliest known work of figurative art altogether. The ivory carving, found in six fragments in Germany's Hohle Fels cave, represents the typical features of Venus figurines, including the swollen belly, wide-set thighs, and large breasts.
The majority of the Venus figurines appear to be depictions of females that follow certain artistic conventions, on the lines of schematisation and stylisation. Most of them are roughly lozenge-shaped, with two tapering terminals at top (head) and bottom (legs) and the widest point in the middle (hips/belly). In some examples, certain parts of the human anatomy are exaggerated: abdomen, hips, breasts, thighs, vulva. In contrast, other anatomical details are neglected or absent, especially arms and feet. The heads are often of relatively small size and devoid of detail. Some may represent pregnant women, while others show no such signs.
The high amount of fat around the buttocks of some of the figurines has led to numerous controversies. The issue was first raised by Édouard Piette, excavator of the Brassempouy figure and of several other examples from the Pyrenees. Some authors saw this feature as the depiction of an actual physical property, resembling the Khoisan tribe of southern Africa, while others interpreted it as a symbol of fertility and abundance. Recently, similar figurines with protruding buttocks from the prehistoric Jōmon period Japan were also interpreted as steatopygia of local women, possibly under nutritional stress.
The Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Laussel bear traces of having been externally covered in red ochre. The significance of this is not clear, but is normally assumed to be religious or ritual in nature—perhaps symbolic of the blood of menstruation or childbirth. Some buried human bodies were similarly covered, and the colour may just represent life.
All generally accepted Paleolithic female figurines are from the Upper Palaeolithic. Although they were originally mostly considered Aurignacian, the majority are now associated with the Gravettian and Solutrean. In these periods, the more rotund figurines are predominant. During the Magdalenian, the forms become finer with more detail; conventional stylization also develops.
|Name||Age (kya, approx.)||Location||Material|
|Venus of Hohle Fels||35–40||Swabian Alb, Germany||mammoth ivory|
|Venus of Galgenberg||30||Lower Austria||serpentine rock|
|Venus of Dolní Věstonice||27–31||Moravia, Czech Republic||ceramic|
|Venus of Lespugue||24–26||French Pyrenees||ivory|
|Venus of Willendorf||24–26||Lower Austria||limestone|
|Venus of Petřkovice||23||Silesia, Czech Republic||hematite|
|Venus of Mal'ta||23||Irkutsk Oblast, Russia||ivory|
|Venus of Moravany||23||Moravany nad Váhom, Slovakia||mammoth ivory|
|Venus of Brassempouy||22||Aquitaine, France||ivory|
|Venus of Laussel||20||Dordogne, France||limestone relief|
|Venus figurines of Gönnersdorf||11,5–15||Germany||ivory, antler, bone|
|Venus of Monruz||11||Switzerland||black jet|
|Venus of Parabita||12-14||Parabita, Italy||Bone of Horse|
A number of attempts to subdivide or classify the figurines have been made. One of the less controversial is that by Henri Delporte, simply based on geographic provenance. He distinguishes:
- the Venus figurines of the Pyrenees-Aquitaine group (Venus of Lespugue, of Laussel and of Brassempouy)
- the Venus figurines of the Italian group (Venus of Savignano and of Balzi Rossi)
- the Venus figurines of the Rhine-Danube group (Venus of Willendorf and of Dolní Věstonice)
- the Venus figurines of the Russian group (Kostienki and Zaraysk in Russia and Gagarino in Ukraine)
- the Venus figurines of the Siberian group (Mal'ta Venus, Bouret' Venus).
Venus figurines are also found elsewhere in the world, for example Japan.
According to André Leroi-Gourhan, there are cultural connections between all these groups. He states that certain anatomical details suggest a shared Oriental origin, followed by a westward diffusion.
There are many interpretations of the figurines, often based on little argument or fact.
Like many prehistoric artifacts, the cultural meaning of these figures may never be known. Archaeologists speculate, however, that they may be emblems of security and success, fertility icons, or direct representations of a mother goddess. The female figures, as part of Upper Palaeolithic portable art, appear to have no practical use in the context of subsistence. They are mostly discovered in settlement contexts, both in open-air sites and caves; burial contexts are much rarer.
At Gagarino in Russia, seven Venus figurines were found in a hut of 5 m diameter; they have been interpreted as apotropaic amulets, connected with the occupants of the dwelling. At Mal'ta, near Lake Baikal, figurines are only known from the left sides of huts. The figurines were probably not hidden or secret amulets, but rather were displayed to be seen by all (a factor that may explain their wide geographic spread). An image of excess weight may have symbolized a yearning for plenty and security.
Some scholars and popular theorists suggest a direct continuity between the Palaeolithic female figurines and later examples of female depictions from the Neolithic or even the Bronze Age. Such views have been contested on numerous grounds, not least the general absence of such depictions during the intervening Mesolithic.
Helen Benigni argues in The Emergence of the Goddess that the consistency in design of these featureless, large-breasted, often pregnant figures throughout a wide region and over a long period of time suggests they represent an archetype of a female Supreme Creator. Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age people likely connected the female as a creator innately tied to the cycles of nature: women gave birth and their menstrual cycles aligned with lunar cycles and tides.
Other female figurines and continuity
A female figurine which has 'no practical use and is portable' and has the common elements of a venus figurine (a strong accent or exaggeration of female sex linked traits, and the lack of complete lower limbs) is necessarily considered to be venus figurines. Figurines which match the 'venus' description have been found in the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and into the Bronze Age age. The period and location that a figurine came from can contribute to the opinion of a given archeologist, such that ceramic figurines from the late ceramic Neolithic are accepted as venus figurines, while stone figurines from later periods are not. This is a case where the inaccuracy of the term 'venus figure' complicates matters, such that the reasoning behind disqualifying an item as a venus figurine can be poorly understood. This is a matter of ongoing debate given the strong similarity between many figurines from the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and beyond. A reworked endocast of a brachiopod from around 6000 BC in Norway has been identified as a late Venus figurine. In Germany, similar endocasts were collected as Scham-Steine (Gr. "shame stones") into the Medieval period.
Distinctions in archeology are not always simple. Although the Chalcolithic (copper) period began about 4500 BC and the Bronze Age began about 3500 BC, there are sites which are accepted as being primarily Neolithic in nature or mixed, as well as artifacts which are strongly Neolithic in technology or nature although they date from after the beginning of the Chalcolithic and/or Bronze Age.
There is also no absolute cutoff date which exists for the end the Neolithic as it moved through early ceramic use into the Bronze Age. There is evidence of the ongoing existence of Neolithic technology in the Bronze Age even with the widespread change of social structures found in many locations. It is a fact of human development that cultural and technological traits of the Neolithic did not simply die out with the emergence of Metallurgy. Stone items continued to be made for both practical and ritual purposes long after the Bronze Age. Stone plows were used in the medieval era and stone Anchors were used for so long that they tend to be from indeterminate periods. The use of stone for ritual artifacts and burial goods continued into the Bronze Age and beyond (see the Battle-axe people who flourished through the Copper Age, and culminated in the early Bronze Age, and despite the existence of bronze tools continued to produce fine carved stone axes which emulated every element of 'use' copper axes, including the casting marks, but which have been commonly found as grave goods).
This means that a given female figurine may or may not be classified as a venus figure by any given archeologist, regardless of its date, though most archeologist disqualify figurines that date after the emergence of Metallurgy, even though their purpose could have been the same. For instance, the Mehrgarh figurine has all of the common characteristics of a venus stone figurine, including large breasts and incomplete legs, however it came from what is now Pakistan and also dates to 3000 BCE, which lies after the beginning of the Bronze Age.
Stylised Venus of Bouret
- Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker (27 May 2012). Nude Woman (Venus of Willendorf), c. 28,000-25,000 B.C.E. (youtube video) (in English). Smarthistory, Art History at Khan Academy. Event occurs at 0:21. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
- White, Randall (December 2008). "The Women of Brassempouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation" (PDF). Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13 (4): 250–303. doi:10.1007/s10816-006-9023-z.
- Of the mammoth-ivory figurine fragment known as La Poire ("the pear") from her massive thighs, Randall White (White 2006:263, caption to fig. 6) observed the connection.
- Conard, Nicholas J (14 May 2009). "A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany" (PDF). Nature 459 (7244): 248–252. doi:10.1038/nature07995. PMID 19444215. Retrieved 27 July 2010.
- Cressey, Daniel (13 May 2009). "Ancient Venus rewrites history books". Nature. News. doi:10.1038/news.2009.473.
- The body used is the local loess, with only traces of clay; there is no trace of surface burnishing or applied pigment. Pamela B. Vandiver, Olga Soffer, Bohuslav Klima and Jiři Svoboda, "The Origins of Ceramic Technology at Dolni Věstonice, Czechoslovakia", Science, New Series, 246, No. 4933 (November 24, 1989:1002-1008).
- Sandars, 29
- Hudson MJ et al. (2008). "Possible steatopygia in prehistoric central Japan: evidence from clay figurines". Anthropological Science 116 (1): 87–92. doi:10.1537/ase.060317.
- Sandars, 28
- H. Delporte : L’image de la femme dans l’art préhistorique, Éd. Picard (1993) ISBN 2-7084-0440-7
- Hizri Amirkhanov and Sergey Lev. New finds of art objects from the Upper Palaeolithic site of Zaraysk, Russia
- Membrana.ru, Венеры каменного века найдены под Зарайском
- Women's Prehistoric Jomon Pottery
- Leroi-Gourhan, A., Cronología del arte paleolítico, 1966, Actas de VI Congreso internacional de Ciencias prehistóricas y protohistóricas, Roma.
- Walter Burkert, Homo Necans (1972) 1983:78, with extensive bibliography, including P.J. Ucko, who contested the identification with mother goddesses and argues for a plurality of meanings, in Anthropomorphic Figurines of Predynastic Egypt and Neolithic Crete with Comparative Material from the Prehistoric Near East and Mainland Greece (1968).
- Benigni, Helen, ed. 2013. The Mythology of Venus: Ancient Calendars and Archaeoastronomy. Lanham, Maryland : University Press Of America.
- Tidemann, Grethe. "Venus fra Svinesund". Uniforum. University of Oslo. Retrieved 11 December 2014.
- Angermann, Johann Gotthilf (1766). Allgemeine practische Civil-Bau-Kunst, welche zum Vortheil aller Haus-Wirthe und Bau-Verständigen abgefasset worden. Curt (original from the Bawarian State Library). p. 272. Retrieved 11 December 2014.
- Sandars, plate 12
- Sandars, plate 9
- Sandars, Nancy K. (1968), Prehistoric Art in Europe. Penguin: Pelican, now Yale, History of Art. (nb 1st ed.)
- “Artifact.” 2009. Archaeology 62: 68.
- C. Cohen : La femme des origines - images de la femme dans la préhistoire occidentale, Belin - Herscher (2003) ISBN 2-7335-0336-7
- Cook, Jill (2013), Ice Age Art: the Arrival of the Modern Mind; [... to accompany the exhibition of the British Museum from 7 February to 26 May 2013]. London: British Museum Press. ISBN 978-0-7141-2333-2
- H. Delporte, L'image de la femme dans l'art préhistorique, éd. Picard, 1993 (ISBN 2-7084-0440-7)
- Dixson, Alan F., and Barnaby Dixson. 2011. “Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?” Journal of Anthropology 2011 [sic]: 1-11.
- Isabella, Jude. 2012. “One minute with April Nowell.” New Scientist, 216, Issue 2890.
- Schlesier, Karl H. 2001. “More on the ‘Venus’ Figurines.” Current Anthropology 42: 410-12.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Venus figurines.|
- Venus figures from the Stone Age - with excellent pictures of most of the figurines
- Undergraduate thesis, University of Texas, PDF
- Images of women in ancient art
- Christopher Witcombe, "Analysis of the Venus of Willendorf"
- Venus figurines and other portable Ice Age Art, with Dr Jill Cook, Curator of European Prehistory, British Museum
- (Canadian Museum of Civilization) The Balzi Rossi Figurines
- LeRoy McDermott, "Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines"