Venus figurines

Venus figurines

Venus figurines is an umbrella term for a number of prehistoric statuettes of women portrayed with similar physical attributes from the Upper Palaeolithic, mostly found in Europe, but with finds as far east as Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, extending their distribution to much of Eurasia, from the Pyrenees to Lake Baikal. Most of them date to the Gravettian period, but there are a number of early examples from the Aurignacian, including the Venus of Hohle Fels, discovered in 2008, carbon dated to at least 35,000 years ago, and late examples of the Magdalenian, such as the Venus of Monruz, aged about 11,000 years.

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.


History of discovery

The first Upper Paleolithic representation of a woman was discovered about 1864 by the Marquis de Vibraye, at Laugerie-Basse (Dordogne), 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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3][4]


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.[5] In The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, Cynthia Eller says: "...they rarely show signs of pregnancy, childbirth or lactation. If Paleolithic artists were interested in representing the fertility of women, there are obvious ways in which to do this—such as making female figures that are indisputably pregnant or holding an infant—yet these images have not been found in Paleolithic art."[6]

The question of the steatopygia 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.[7]

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.[8]

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.

Notable specimens

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 Mal'ta 23 Irkutsk Oblast, Russia ivory
Venus of Moravany 23 Záhorie, Slovakia mammoth ivory
Venus of Hradok 4 Nitriansky Hrádok, Slovakia mammoth ivory
Venus of Brassempouy 22 Aquitaine, France ivory
Venus of Laussel 20 Dordogne, France limestone relief
Venus of Monruz 11 Switzerland black jet


Mal'ta Venus (Archaeological Museum of Valletta)

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.[9] He distinguishes:

Venus figurines are also found elsewhere in the world, for example Japan.[12] China.[13]

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.[14]

The absence of such figurines from the Iberian peninsula is curious. Only few and rather dubious examples have been reported, especially at El Pendo and La Pileta. The so-called Venus of Las Caldas from a cave near Oviedo is a Magdalenian antler carving. Although some scholars see it as a stylised female body with an animal head, it is probably a decorated atlatl-type device.


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, pornographic imagery, or even direct representations of a mother goddess or various local goddesses. 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 more rare.

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.

Recently, two very ancient stone objects (between 200,000 and 300,000 years old) have been interpreted as attempts at representing females. One, the Venus of Berekhat Ram, was discovered on the Golan Heights; the other, the Venus of Tan-Tan, in Morocco. Both remain controversial. In any case, both are at best very cursorily and summarily carved, if they were carved at all. Their shape may simply result from natural erosion, their anthropomorphic appearance being coincidental.

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.[15] Such views have been contested on numerous grounds, not least the general absence of such depictions during the intervening Mesolithic.


See also


  1. ^ White, Randall (December 2006). "The Women of Brassempouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation". Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13 (4): 250–303. doi:10.1007/s10816-006-9023-z. 
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Conard, Nicholas J (14 May 2009). "A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany". Nature 459 (7244): 248–252. doi:10.1038/nature07995. PMID 19444215. Retrieved 27 July 2010. 
  4. ^ Cressey, Daniel (13 May 2009). "Ancient Venus rewrites history books". Nature. News. doi:10.1038/news.2009.473 
  5. ^ Sandars, 29
  6. ^ Eller, Cynthis The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001) p135
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ Sandars, 28
  9. ^ H. Delporte : L’image de la femme dans l’art préhistorique, Éd. Picard (1993) ISBN 2-7084-0440-7
  10. ^ Hizri Amirkhanov and Sergey Lev. New finds of art objects from the Upper Palaeolithic site of Zaraysk, Russia
  11. ^, Венеры каменного века найдены под Зарайском
  12. ^ Women's Prehistoric Jomon Pottery
  13. ^ 红山文化石人雕像 (Hongshan culture stone human figurines)
  14. ^ Leroi-Gourhan, A., Cronología del arte paleolítico, 1966, Actas de VI Congreso internacional de Ciencias prehistóricas y protohistóricas, Roma.
  15. ^ 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).
  16. ^ a b Sandars, plate 12
  17. ^ Sandars, plate 9


  • Sandars, Nancy K., Prehistoric Art in Europe, Penguin (Pelican, now Yale, History of Art), 1968 (nb 1st edn.)


  • D.W. Bailey Prehistoric Figurines: Representation and Corporeality, London - Routledge (2005) ISBN 0-415-33152-8
  • D.W. Bailey, A. Cochrane, J. Zambelli unearthed: A Comparative Study of Jomon Dogu and Neolithic Figurines, Norwich - Sainsbury Center (2010) ISBN 978-0-9545921-2-7
  • C. Cohen : La femme des origines - images de la femme dans la préhistoire occidentale, Belin - Herscher (2003) ISBN 2-7335-0336-7
  • H. Delporte, L'image de la femme dans l'art préhistorique, éd. Picard, 1993 (ISBN 2-7084-0440-7)
This article incorporates information from this version of the equivalent article on the French Wikipedia.

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