A Venus figurine is any Upper Paleolithic statuette portraying a woman, with fewer sculptures depicting men or figures of uncertain sex, and those in relief or engraved on rock or stones are often discussed together. 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.
Most of them date from the Gravettian period (26,000–21,000 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, some 144 such figurines are known; virtually all of modest size, between 3 cm and 40 cm or more 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, 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.
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, as erotic art or sex aids, grandmother goddesses or as self-depictions by female artists.
The expression 'Venus' was first used in the mid-nineteenth century by the Marquis de Vibraye, who discovered an important ivory figurine and named it La Vénus impudique or Venus Impudica ("immodest Venus"), contrasting it to the Venus Pudica, Hellenistic sculpture by Praxiteles showing Aphrodite covering her naked pubis with her right hand.
The use of the name is metaphorical as there is no link between the figurines and the Roman goddess Venus, although they have been interpreted 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.
Vénus impudique, the figurine that gave the whole class its name, was the very first Paleolithic sculptural representation of a woman discovered in modern times. It was found in about 1864 by Paul Hurault, 8th Marquis de Vibraye at the famous archaeological site of Laugerie-Basse in the Vézère valley (one of the many important Stone Age sites in and around the commune of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in Dordogne, southwestern France). The Magdalenian "Venus" from Laugerie-Basse is headless, footless, armless but with a strongly incised vaginal opening.
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.
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 women, 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. 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. 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 (but not depicting) 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. (c.f.Jōmon Venus)
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 (kyr, 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 Brassempouy||23||Brassempouy, France||ivory|
|Venus of Petřkovice||23||Silesia, Czech Republic||hematite|
|Venus figurines of Mal'ta||23||Irkutsk Oblast, Russia||ivory|
|Venuses of Buret'||23||Irkutsk Oblast, Russia||ivory, serpentine rock|
|Venus of Moravany||23||Moravany nad Váhom, Slovakia||mammoth ivory|
|Venus of Savignano||20–25||Savignano sul Panaro, Italy||serpentine rock|
|Venus figurines of Balzi Rossi||18–25||Ventimiglia, Italy||ivory, soapstone, serpentine, chlorite|
|Venus figurines of Gönnersdorf||11,5–15||Germany||ivory, antler, bone|
|Venus figurines of Petersfels||11,5–15||Engen, Germany||black jet|
|Venus of Monruz||11||Switzerland||black jet|
|Venus of Parabita||12–14||Parabita, Italy||horse bone|
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 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.
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 were commonly believed to give birth and their menstrual cycles aligned with lunar cycles and tides.
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.
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) may be considered to be a Venus figurine, even if from after the main Palaeolithic period. Figurines which match this definition, apart from date, have been found in the Neolithic and into the Bronze Age. The period and location that a figurine came from will contribute to the opinion of a given archeologist, such that ceramic figurines from the late ceramic Neolithic may be accepted as Venus figurines, while stone figurines from later periods are not. 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.
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 archaeologists disqualify figurines which date from after the Paleolithic, 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.
Bone carving is the act of creating art forms by carving into animal bones and often includes the carving of antlers and horns. It can result in the ornamentation of a bone, or the creation of a figure. It has been practiced by a variety of world cultures, sometimes as a cheaper, and recently a legal, substitute for ivory carving. It was important in prehistoric art, with notable figures like the Swimming Reindeer (antler), and many of the Venus figurines. The Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket is a bone casket imitating earlier ivory ones.
Bone was also used by artists and craftsmen to try out their designs, especially by metalworkers. Such pieces are known as "trial-pieces".Gravettian
The Gravettian was an archaeological industry of the European Upper Paleolithic that succeeded the Aurignacian circa 33,000 years BP. It is archaeologically the last European culture many consider unified, and had mostly disappeared by c. 22,000 BP, close to the Last Glacial Maximum, although some elements lasted until c. 17,000 BP. At this point, it was replaced abruptly by the Solutrean in France and Spain, and developed into or continued as the Epigravettian in Italy, the Balkans, Ukraine and Russia.They are known for their Venus figurines, which were typically made as either ivory or limestone carvings. The Gravettian culture was first identified at the site of La Gravette in Southwestern France.Mal'ta–Buret' culture
The Mal'ta–Buret' culture is an archaeological culture of the Upper Paleolithic (c. 24,000 to 15,000 BP) on the upper Angara River in the area west of Lake Baikal in the Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, Russian Federation. The type sites are named for the villages of Mal'ta (Мальта́), Usolsky District and Buret' (Буреть), Bokhansky District (both in Irkutsk Oblast).
A boy whose remains were found near Mal'ta is usually known by the abbreviation MA-1 (or MA1). Discovered in the 1920s, the remains have been dated to 24,000 BP. According to research published since 2013, MA-1 belonged to a population related to the genetic ancestors of Siberians, American Indians, and Bronze Age Yamnaya people of the Eurasian steppe. In particular, modern-day Native Americans, Kets, Mansi, Nganasans and Yukaghirs have been found to harbour a lot of ancestry related to MA-1.Much of what is known about Mal'ta comes from the Russian archaeologist Mikhail Gerasimov. Better known later for his contribution to the branch of anthropology known as forensic facial reconstruction, Gerasimov made revolutionary discoveries when he excavated Mal'ta in 1927. Until his findings, the Upper Paleolithic societies of Northern Asia were virtually unknown. Over the remainder of his career Gerasimov twice more visited Mal'ta to excavate and research the site.Venus figurines of Balzi Rossi
The Venus figurines of Balzi Rossi (also: Venus figurines of Grimaldi, Venus figurines from the Balzi-Rossi-Caves) from the caves near Grimaldi di Ventimiglia (Italy) are thirteen Paleolithic sculptures of the female body. Additionally, two small depictions of the human head were discovered at the same place. The age of these figurines cannot be determined because of missing archaeological context data. It is usually accepted that these figurines stem from the Gravettian, about 24,000 to 19,000 years old. Most of the sculptures consist of steatite and are between 2.4 and 7.5 cm in height.
Between 1883 to 1895 the figurines were discovered by the antique dealer Louis Alexandre Jullien at the cave complex Balzi Rossi ("red cliffs") at the Ligurian coast. Eight of these sculptures are housed in the museum Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris.Venus figurines of Gagarino
The Venus figurines of Gagarino are eight Palaeolithic Venus figurines made from ivory. The statuettes belong to the Gravettian industry and are about 21,000–20,000 years old. They were discovered near to the village of Gagarino in Lipetsk Oblast, Russia, and are now held in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.Venus figurines of Gönnersdorf
The Venus figurines from Gönnersdorf, at Neuwied, are paleolithic sculptures depicting the female body.Venus figurines of Mal'ta
The Venus figurines of Mal’ta (also: Malta) are several palaeolithic figurines of women found in Siberia, Russia.
They consist most often of ivory. Delporte writes of 29 figurines altogether. They are about 20,000 years old and stem from the Gravettian. Most of these statuettes show stylized clothes. Quite often the face is depicted. They were discovered at Mal'ta, at the Angara River, near Lake Baikal in Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia by the archeologists Sergey Zamyatnin, Georgy Sosnovsky, and Mikhail Gerasimov.These figurines are on display at the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.Venus figurines of Petersfels
The Venus figurines of Petersfels are several small female statuettes from the Upper Paleolithic era, carved from jet lignite. The tallest figurine is called the Venus of Engen. The figurines were discovered in the Petersfels caves near Engen, Baden-Württemberg, excavated in 1927–1932 by Eduard Peters und Volker Toepfer and then in 1974–1976 and 1978 by Gerd Albrecht. They stand between 1.5 and 4 cm tall and are about 15000 to 11500 years old, created during the Magdalenian era. They are housed in the Museums of Freiburg im Breisgau and Engen.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 Naama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. An article by Goren-Inbar and volcanologist Sergiu Peltz (1995) claims it has been modified to represent a female human figure, identifying it as a possible artifact 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.Venus of Brassempouy
The Venus of Brassempouy (French: la Dame de Brassempouy, meaning "Lady of Brassempouy", or Dame à la Capuche, "Lady with the Hood") is a fragmentary ivory figurine from the Upper Palaeolithic. It was discovered in a cave at Brassempouy, France in 1892. About 25,000 years old, it is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human face.Venus of Buret'
Venus of Buret' may refer to any of the five Venus figurines found from archeological site of Buret' in Siberia near Irkutsk and the Angara river valley.Four of them are made of ivory and one of them is made of serpentine. One of the figurines (pictured) made of ivory depicts a shrouded person. A similar shrouded figurine has been found from Mal'ta. Carvings on the figurine might represent decorated clothes. The figurine is partially sexually ambiguous due to lack of breasts, but it has an emphasized pubic triangle and vaginal area.Venus figurines by Mal'ta-Buret' culture of the area are considered to be geographically isolated. They have features that differ from other Venuses of the Paleolithic era, as they have clothes, instead of being nude, and they also have elaborately carved faces.Venus of Dolní Věstonice
The Venus of Dolní Věstonice (Czech: Věstonická venuše) is a Venus figurine, a ceramic statuette of a nude female figure dated to 29,000–25,000 BCE (Gravettian industry), or 29,000 - 25,000 BC. It was found at the Paleolithic site Dolní Věstonice in the Moravian basin south of Brno, in the base of Děvín Mountain, 549 metres (1,801 ft). This figurine and a few others from locations nearby are the oldest known ceramic articles in the world.Venus of Galgenberg
The Venus of Galgenberg is a Venus figurine of the Aurignacian era, dated to about 30,000 years ago.
The sculpture, also known in German as the Fanny von Galgenberg, was discovered in 1988 close to Stratzing, Austria, not far from the site of the Venus of Willendorf. The two statuettes are normally displayed in the same cabinet at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, to emphasise the special nature of these two "old ladies", as the curator affectionately calls them.The figurine measures 7.2 cm in height and weighs 10 g. It is sculpted from shiny green serpentine rock which is found in the immediate vicinity of where the figurine was unearthed.
Because the figurine exhibits a "dancing pose" it was given the nickname of "Fanny" after Fanny Elssler, an Austrian ballerina of the 19th century.Venus of Hohle Fels
The Venus of Hohle Fels (also known as the Venus of Schelklingen; in German variously Venus vom Hohlen Fels, vom Hohle Fels; Venus von Schelklingen) is an Upper Paleolithic Venus figurine made of mammoth ivory that was unearthed in 2008 in Hohle Fels, a cave near Schelklingen, Germany. It is dated to between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago, belonging to the early Aurignacian, at the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, which is associated with the earliest presence of Cro-Magnon in Europe.
The figure is the oldest undisputed example of a depiction of a human being. In terms of figurative art only the lion-headed, zoomorphic Löwenmensch figurine is older. The Venus figurine is housed at the Prehistoric Museum of Blaubeuren (Urgeschichtliches Museum Blaubeuren).Venus of Lespugue
The Venus of Lespugue is a Venus figurine, a statuette of a nude female figure of the Gravettian, dated to between 26,000 and 24,000 years ago.Venus of Monruz
The Venus of Monruz (also Venus of Neuchâtel, Venus of Neuchâtel-Monruz) is a Venus figurine of the late Upper Paleolithic, or the beginning Epipaleolithic, dating to the end of the Magdalenian, some 11,000 years ago.
It is a black jet pendant in the shape of a stylized human body, measuring 18 mm in height. It was discovered in 1991, at the construction of the N5 highway, at Monruz in the municipality of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
The Venus figurines of Petersfels from a site near Engen, Germany, bear remarkable resemblance to the Venus of Monruz. Especially the biggest of them, called Venus from Engen may have been done by the same artist. It is also made of jet, and also dates to the Magdalenian - to ca. 15,000 years ago. The sites of discovery of the two figurines are about 130 km apart,.Venus of Petřkovice
The Venus of Petřkovice (Czech: Petřkovická venuše or Landecká venuše) is a pre-historic Venus figurine, a mineral statuette of a nude female figure, dated to about 23,000 BCE (Gravettian industry) in what is today the Czech Republic.Venus of Tan-Tan
The Venus of Tan-Tan is an alleged artifact found in Morocco. It and its contemporary, the Venus of Berekhat Ram, have been claimed as the earliest representations of the human form. Critics, notably Professor Stanley Ambrose of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, contend the rock's shape is the result of natural weathering and erosion which coincidentally produced a remotely human-like object, i.e., a geofact.
The object is a 6cm-long piece of quartzite rock dated to the Middle Acheulean period, between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago, which some have interpreted as a depiction of the human form, gender indeterminate and faceless. It was discovered in 1999, during an archaeological survey by Lutz Fiedler, state archaeologist of Hesse, Germany, in a river terrace deposit on the north bank of the Draa River a few kilometers south of the Moroccan town of Tan-Tan.According to its discoverer and others, e.g. Robert Bednarik, the object had been created by natural geological processes giving it a general human-like shape that was recognized by early man and was taken as a manuport. Then it was accentuated by carving it with a stone-wedge; "a greasy substance" on the stone's surface containing iron and manganese may be remnants of red ochre pigments used by humans to further accentuate the human-like form.Venus of Willendorf
The Venus of Willendorf is an 11.1-centimetre-tall (4.4 in) Venus figurine estimated to have been made 30,000 BCE. It was found on August 7, 1908 by a workman named Johann Veran or Josef Veram during excavations conducted by archaeologists Josef Szombathy, Hugo Obermaier and Josef Bayer at a paleolithic site near Willendorf, a village in Lower Austria near the town of Krems. It is carved from an oolitic limestone that is not local to the area, and tinted with red ochre. The figurine is now in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.