Venus figurines

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A Venus figurine is any Upper Paleolithic statuette portraying a woman,[1] although the fewer images depicting men or figures of uncertain gender,[2] and those in relief or engraved on rock or stones are often discussed together.[3] Most have been unearthed in Europe, but others have been found as far away as Siberia, extending their distribution across much of Eurasia, although with many gaps, such as the Mediterranean outside Italy.[4]

Most of them date from the Gravettian period (26,000–21,000 years ago),[5] 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, some 144 such figurines are known;[6] virtually all of modest size, between 3 cm and 40 cm or more in height.[7] 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, although many do not, and the concentration in popular accounts on those that do reflects modern preoccupations rather than the range of actual artefacts. In contrast, arms and feet are often absent, and the head is usually small and faceless. Depictions of hairstyles can be detailed, and especially in Siberian examples, clothing or tattoos may be indicated.[8]

The original cultural meaning and purpose of these artifacts is not known. It has frequently been suggested that they may have served a ritual or symbolic function. There are widely varying and speculative interpretations of their use or meaning: they have been seen as religious figures,[9] as erotic art or sex aids,[10] or alternatively as self-depictions by female artists.[11]


The expression 'Venus' was first used in the mid-nineteenth century by the Marquis de Vibraye, who found a figurine at Laugerie-Basse in the Vezere valley Dordogne. He called it "Venus Impudica", alluding to the hellenistic Venus Pudica.[12]

The use of the name is metaphorical, there is no link between the figurines and the Roman goddess Venus, although they have been seen as representations of a primordial female goddess. The term 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.[13]

History of discovery[edit]

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 Magdalenian "Venus" from Laugerie-Basse is headless, footless, armless but with a strongly incised vaginal opening.[14]

Four years later, Salomon Reinach published an article about 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.[15]

Two views of the Venus of Hohle Fels figurine (height 6 cm (2.4 in)), which may have been worn as an amulet and is the earliest known, undisputed example of figurative prehistoric art

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.[16][17]


Venus of Dolní Věstonice, the earliest discovered use of ceramics[18] (29,000 BCE – 25,000 BCE)

The majority of the Venus figurines appear to be depictions of females, many of which 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.[19] It has been suggested that aspects of the typical depiction and perspective, such as the large and often pendulous breasts, emphasis on the upper rather than lower buttocks, and lack of feet and faces, support the theory that these are self-portraits by women without access to mirrors, looking at their own bodies.[20] The absence of feet has led to suggestions that the figures might have been made to stand upright by inserting the legs into the ground like a peg.

The high amount of fat around the buttocks of some of the figurines has led to numerous interpretations. 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.[21]

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.[22]

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.[23] In these periods, the more rotund figurines are predominant. During the Magdalenian, the forms become finer with more detail; conventional stylization also develops.

Notable specimens[edit]

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 figurines of Mal'ta 23 Irkutsk Oblast, Russia ivory
Venus of Moravany 23 Moravany nad Váhom, Slovakia mammoth ivory
Venus of Savignano 20–25 Savignano sul Panaro, Italy serpentine rock
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 Horse bone


A number of attempts to subdivide or classify the figurines have been made.[24] One of the less controversial is that by Henri Delporte, simply based on geographic provenance.[25] He distinguishes:

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.[28]


There are many interpretations of the figurines, often based on little argument or fact.[29]

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;[30] burial contexts are much rarer.[citation needed]

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 in Siberia, 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.[citation needed]

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.[31]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fagan, 740
  2. ^ Beck, 203
  3. ^ Fagan, 740-741
  4. ^ Fagan, 740-741; Beck, 203
  5. ^ Fagan, 740-741
  6. ^ Cook
  7. ^ Fagan, 740
  8. ^ Fagan, 740-741; Isabella, Jude, interview with April Nowell. ""Palaeo-porn"': we’ve got it all wrong, 2012. New Scientist, 216, Issue 2890, online; Cook; Beck, 205-214
  9. ^ Beck, 207-208
  10. ^ Rudgley, Richard, The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, 2000, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0684862700, 9780684862705194-198, google books; Fagan, 740-741
  11. ^ William Haviland, Harald Prins, Dana Walrath, Bunny McBride, Anthropology: The Human Challenge, 13th edition, 2010,Cengage Learning, ISBN 0495810843, 9780495810841,google books; Cook; Beck, 205-208
  12. ^ Beck, 202-203
  13. ^ Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker (27 May 2012). Nude Woman (Venus of Willendorf), c. 28,000-25,000 B.C.E. (youtube video). Smarthistory, Art History at Khan Academy. Event occurs at 0:21. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ Cressey, Daniel (13 May 2009). "Ancient Venus rewrites history books". Nature. News. doi:10.1038/news.2009.473. 
  18. ^ 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).
  19. ^ Sandars, 29; Fagan, 740-741; Cook; Beck, 203-213, who analyses attempts to classify the figures.
  20. ^ Cook; McDermott, LeRoy. 1996. "Self-representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines". Current Anthropology 37 (2). [University of Chicago Press, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research]: 227–75. JSTOR
  21. ^ 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. 
  22. ^ Sandars, 28
  23. ^ Fagan, 740-741; Beck, 203
  24. ^ Beck, 208-213 analyses several
  25. ^ H. Delporte : L’image de la femme dans l’art préhistorique, Éd. Picard (1993) ISBN 2-7084-0440-7
  26. ^ Hizri Amirkhanov and Sergey Lev. New finds of art objects from the Upper Palaeolithic site of Zaraysk, Russia
  27. ^, Венеры каменного века найдены под Зарайском
  28. ^ Leroi-Gourhan, A., Cronología del arte paleolítico, 1966, Actas de VI Congreso internacional de Ciencias prehistóricas y protohistóricas, Roma.
  29. ^ Fagan, 740-741
  30. ^ Fagan, 740-741
  31. ^ Benigni, Helen, ed. 2013. The Mythology of Venus: Ancient Calendars and Archaeoastronomy. Lanham, Maryland : University Press Of America.
  32. ^ a b Sandars, plate 12
  33. ^ Sandars, plate 9


  • Beck, Margaret, in Ratman, Alison E. (ed.), Reading the Body: Representations and Remains in the Archaeological Record, 2000, University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 0812217098, 9780812217094, google books
  • Cook, Jill, Venus figurines, Video with Dr Jill Cook, Curator of European Prehistory, British Museum
  • Fagan, Brian M., Beck, Charlotte, "Venus Figurines", The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, 1996, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195076184, 9780195076189, google books
  • Sandars, Nancy K. (1968), Prehistoric Art in Europe. Penguin: Pelican, now Yale, History of Art. (nb 1st ed.)

Further reading[edit]

  • Cohen, C. : 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; London: British Museum Press. ISBN 978-0-7141-2333-2
  • Delporte, Henri 1993. L'image de la femme dans l'art préhistorique, éd. Picard. (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.

External links[edit]