Venus Figurines
Definition, Characteristics, Interpretation.

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Venus of Gagarino (c.20,000 BCE)
Among the oldest art of Russia.

Prehistoric Venus Figurines (30,000-20,000 BCE)

Contents

What Are Venus Figurines?
Venus Art
First Archeological Discoveries
Common Characteristics
Interpretation
Earliest Known Venus Figurines
List of Famous Venus Figurines - (Not typical: Berekhat Ram - Tan-Tan)
Hohle Fels - Galgenberg - Dolni Vestonice - Montpazier
Willendorf - Savignano - Moravany - Laussel - Brassempouy
Lespugue - Kostenky - Gagarino - Avdeevo - Malta



Venus of Dolni Vestonice (26,000 BCE)
First known work of ceramic art.
See: Oldest Stone Age Art.

What Are Venus Figurines?

Coinciding with the replacement of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis by anatomically modern humans like Cro-Magnon man, at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic era of prehistory (from 40,000 BCE onwards), prehistoric art suddenly blossoms across Europe. This early Stone Age art fall into one of two broad categories: pictures and ideomorphs painted or drawn on the walls and ceilings of caves (parietal art), and prehistoric sculpture (mostly mobiliary art) typically small female "venus figurines", usually unearthed at Stone Age settlement sites.

Venus Art

In archeology, the term "Venus Figurines" is an umbrella description relating to Stone Age statuettes of women, created during the Aurignacian or Gravettian cultures of the upper Palaeolithic (c.33,000-20,000 BCE), throughout Europe from France to Siberia. The general similarity of these sculptures - in size and shape [obese or pregnant] - is extraordinary. They were carved by Stone Age sculptors in all manner of different materials, ranging from soft stone (steatite, calcite or limestone), bone, ivory, wood, or ceramic clays. The latter type are among the oldest ceramic works yet discovered.


Venus of Lespugue (23,000 BCE).
To see how Venus Figurines fit into
the evolution of Stone Age art, see:
Prehistoric Art Timeline.


Venus of Laussel (23,000 BCE)
First bas-relief sculpture.

CHRONOLOGY OF
LATE STONE AGE ART

Mesolithic Art
(from 10,000-variable BCE)
Neolithic Art
(Ends about 2,000 BCE)

Hundreds of such figurines are known, nearly all between 2 and 8 inches in height. Considered by late 19th century archeologists to represent the prehistoric idea of feminine beauty, they were dubbed "venuses" in reference to the Roman goddess of beauty.

First Archeological Discoveries of Venuses

The first Stone Age 3-D representation of a woman was discovered in the Dordogne in France around 1864 by the Marquis de Vibraye. Other early discoveries included the Venus of Brassempouy, unearthed in south-west France in 1894, and the famous Venus of Willendorf in 1908 in the Danube valley, Austria.

Common Characteristics

Most Venus figurines share similar characteristics of design and shape. Typically lozenge-shaped, with a wide fat belly tapering to the head and legs, they usually have no arms or feet, or any facial detail. Furthermore, their abdomen, hips, breasts, thighs, vulva are often deliberately exaggerated. Some are painted with red ochre. These general characteristics are more marked in earlier examples.

Interpretation

Some paleoanthropologists theorize that these Venus figures were probably fertility symbols or some form of primitive religious icons. However, no clear consenus exists among scholars as to their cultural significance. For instance, Grahame Clark states that their meaning is "undeniably sensual", while Rene Nougier denies this emphatically. Walter Torbrügge claims that the Venus figurine is an "invocation of fertility", while experts at the school of Andre Leroi-Gourhan call it a fundamentally religious symbol: a contention flatly rejected by Charles Seltman. A fair conclusion is that the precise meaning of these extraordinary Venus sculptures is unlikely to be known, at least until the "religion", or at least the iconic role of females in the belief system of Stone age man is more fully understood.

Earliest Known Venus Figurines

Somewhat anomalous to the main period of Venus sculpture - the Aurignacian and Gravettian periods of the Upper Paleolithic era - two Venus-type carvings have been found within the Mediterranean area that predate the Upper Paleolithic by hundreds of thousands of years, making them by far the oldest Venus figurines known to archeology. These include: the Venus of Berekhat Ram, found on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria, and the Venus of Tan-Tan, discovered in Morocco. Both originate from the Acheulean culture of the Lower Paleolithic epoch, and have been dated to between 200,000 and 300,000 BCE. Although some controversy still exists as to whether they are the product of human design, other even earlier discoveries of Lower Paleolithic art in India suggest that human fine art developed from a much earlier period than first supposed.

List of Famous Venus Figurines

Here is a selected list of the oldest and most famous examples of prehistoric venus sculpture.

Lower Paleolithic (2,500,000-200,000 BCE)

• Venus of Berekhat Ram (c.230,000 - 700,000 BCE)
• Venus of Tan-Tan (c.200,000 - 500,000 BCE or later)

Upper Paleolithic (40,000-8,000 BCE)

• Venus of Hohle Fels (38,000-33,000 BCE)
• Venus of Galgenberg (c.30,000 BCE)
• Venus of Dolni Vestonice (c.26,000 - 24,000 BCE)
• Venus of Monpazier (c.25,000 BCE)
• Venus of Willendorf (c.25,000 BCE)
• Venus of Savignano (c.24,000 BCE)
• Venus of Moravany (c.24,000 - 22,000 BCE)
• Venus of Laussel (c.23,000 - 20,000 BCE)
• Venus of Brassempouy (c.23,000 BCE)
• Venus of Lespugue (c.23,000 BCE)
• Venus of Kostenky (c.22,000 BCE)
• Venus of Gagarino (c.20,000 BCE)
• Avdeevo Venuses (c.20,000 BCE)
• Mal'ta Venuses (c.20,000 BCE)
• Zaraysk Venuses (c.20,000 BCE)
• Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BCE)
• Venus of Engen (13,000 BCE)
• Venus of Monruz/Neuchatel (10,000 BCE)

Venus of Berekhat Ram
Date: 230,000 - 700,000 BCE
Material: Basalt pebble
The Acheulian-culture Berekhat Ram figurine, is a tuff pebble made of basalt, which was uncovered on the Golan Heights in 1981 by archaeologist N. Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Venus of Tan-Tan
Date: 200,000 - 500,000 BCE (or later)
Material: Quartzite
This Venus figurine, the second example of Acheulian sculpture, was unearthed in 1999 by Lutz Fiedler, state archaeologist of Hessen, Germany, in a river deposit on the north bank of the River Draa a few miles from the Moroccan town of Tan-Tan. Its discovery has to some extent undermined the doubts voiced by many archeologists concerning the singular status of Berekhat Ram as a genuine work of art.

Venus of Hohle Fels (Germany)
Date: 38,000-33,000 BCE
Material: Mammoth ivory
Found in the locality of the Hohlenstein mountain in the Swabian Jura - the site of numerous finds, including the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel and a cache from the Vogelherd cave - see: Ivory Carvings of the Swabian Jura. Also called the Venus of Schelklingen, the Hohle Fells figurine is the oldest known figurative carving of a female in the history of art.

Venus of Galgenberg (Austria)
Date: 30,000 BCE
Material: Serpentine stone
Discovered in 1988, in the sediments of an Aurignacian hunter-gatherer camp site, the Venus of Galgenberg (also known as the Stratzing Figurine) shows the characteristically distinct vulva. Dated to approximately 30,000 BCE, it is the earliest example of Stone Age sculpture ever found in Austria. For more, see: Aurignacian Art (40,000-25,000 BCE).

Venus of Dolni Vestonice (Czech Republic)
Date: 26,000-24,000 BCE
Material: Ceramic clay and bone ash
The 4.5 inch Venus of Dolni Vestonice was discovered in 1925 in a layer of ash, at a Paleolithic settlement site in the Moravian basin, near Brno. Dating from the Gravettian culture, it is one of the earliest examples of ceramic pottery known to archeology. In addition to the Venus figurine, over 2,000 balls of burnt clay have been found at the site. For preservation reasons, it is rarely displayed in public. See: Gravettian Art (25,000-20,000 BCE).

Venus of Monpazier (France)
Date: 25,000 BCE
Material: Limonite stone
Discovered in 1970 in a freshly dug field, the Venus of Monpazier is carved in limonite and displays the characteristically enlarged buttocks and belly. It is distinguished by its exaggerated vulva. Dated to approximately 25,000 BCE, it is the oldest known piece of prehistoric sculpture found in France.

 

Venus of Willendorf (Austria)
Date: 25,000 BCE
Material: Oolitic limestone
The Venus of Willendorf was discovered in 1908, near Krems in Austria. It remains one of the most graphic, naturalistic prehistoric representations of an obese female.

Venus of Savignano (Italy)
Date: 24,000 BCE
Material: Serpentine stone
Discovered in shallow clay soil by the Panaro River, the Venus of Savignano is the Italy's most famous prehistoric female sculpture. Carved out of a block of yellow-greenish serpentine stone, the statuette's bust is tilts backwards and its back is convex: the belly is large, as are the buttocks, below which are voluminous thighs, ending in short tapering legs without feet. Traces of red ochre are visible on the head, right arm and lower backside.

Venus of Moravany (Slovakia)
Date: 24,000-22,000 BCE
Material: Mammoth ivory
Discovered in a freshly ploughed field close to the village of Moravany nad Váhom in Slovakia, in 1938, this figurine is carved from mammoth bone and is 7.6 centimetres in height. The locality was first settled by Neanderthal Man during the Middle Paleolithic, attracted by the abundant supply of game and the nearby hot springs. The Venus of Moravany is currently housed at the Bratislava Castle museum.

Venus of Laussel (France)
Date: c.23,000 BCE
Material: Limestone
The Venus of Laussel was discovered in 1911, carved on a free-standing block of stone in the Dordogne region, quite close to the prehistoric caves of Lascaux. It is a limestone bas-relief, approximately 43 centimetres in height, of a female nude. The sculpture is faintly coloured with red ochre. It was one of six venus figurines carved in relief, which occupied a ceremonial area of the Stone Age rock shelter where it was found. Featuring the customary pendulous breasts, large hips and obese forms, it has hands and fingers but no feet, and the sculptor used the contour of the stone to enhance the pregnant belly. In her right hand, the woman holds a bison horn which contains 13 notches - which may symbolize the number of menstrual cycles in one year. Curiously, on the right side of the figure there is a small engraving of a penniform symbol, one of the abstract signs commonly used in cave painting. One of the earliest known examples of prehistoric bas-relief sculpture, the Venus of Laussel is housed at the Musée d'Aquitaine, in Bordeaux.

Venus of Brassempouy (France)
Date: 23,000 BCE
Material: Mammoth Ivory
Discovered in 1892 at Brassempouy, in southwest France, this figurine is possibly the earliest prehistoric carving of a human face.

Venus of Lespugue (France)
Date: 23,000 BCE
Material: Mammoth ivory
Discovered in 1922 in the Stone Age cave of Les Rideaux near the village of Lespugue in the Haute Garonne region of France, this famous carving is roughly 6 inches in length and represents the height of abstraction for venus figures of the Gravettian Upper Paleolithic culture. Presenting an overall lozenge-like shape, it shares the common characteristics of no facial detail, exaggerated breasts, hips and buttocks, but these features are taken to such extremes that the breasts merge with the torso leading to an uncommonly flattened profile. Overall, a highly stylized interpretation of typical venus sculptural conventions. The figurine is housed at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris.

Venus of Kostenky (Russia)
Date: 22,000 BCE
Material: Mammoth bone
Discovered at the famous archeological site of Kostenky in the Don region of southern Russia, this Venus figurine is the oldest known example of prehistoric sculpture in Russia.

Venus of Gagarino (Russia)
Date: 20,000 BCE
Material: Volcanic rock
Discovered in 1926 by archeologist Zamiatinine, on the right bank of the Don River near its junction with the Sosna River in southern Russia, the figurine is roughly 6 centimetres in length and carved from volcanic rock. It was unearthed during excavations of a Stone Age settlement, during which a large quantity of prehistoric petroglyphs, artifacts, flint tools and animal bones were discovered, along with several "venus" figurines. Sculpted in almost caricature-style, the Gagarino Venus is mainly composed of gargantuan breasts and belly, with short stubs of thighs, broken above the knee.

Avdeevo Venuses (Russia)
Date: 20,000 BCE
Material: Mammoth ivory
Discovered in the aftermath of The Great Patriotic War, the Avdeevo archeological sites were re-excavated in the mid-70s. Avdeevo belongs to the Kosteky-Gagarino-Avdeevo triangle in the Voronezh-Lipesk-Kursk region, and is associated with a less obese and less exaggerated style of venus carving. Also noted for its back-to-back double venus.

Mal'ta Venuses (Russia)
Date: 20,000 BCE
Material: Mammoth ivory
Discovered at Usol'ye near Irkutsk, Lake Baikal in Siberia, the Mal'ta Venus figurines are the oldest Siberian sculptures ever found. Carved from mammoth ivory, or reindeer antler, they lack the obvious obesity of European venus figurines. They are housed at the Hermitage Museum, in St Petersburg.

Zaraysk Venuses (Russia)
Date: 20,000 BCE
Material: Mammoth ivory
Unearthed from the archeological site outside the walls of Zaraysk's medieval fortress, these are the fifth set of venus figurines that make up the Russian school, after the Kostenky, Avdeevo, Gagarino, and Mal'ta figures.

Note: No important Venus figurines are associated with the era of Solutrean Art (20,000-15,000 BCE).

Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BCE)
Date: 14,000 BCE
Material: Ivory
Completely different from the Kostenky-Avdeevo style venuses, this rare Magdalenian statuette from Bryansk has more in common with the French figurine known as the Venus Impudique (14,000 BCE) from the the rock shelter of Laugerie Basse.

Venus of Engen (Swiss)
Date: 13,000 BCE
Material: Jet, a type of semi-precious lignite
Carving closely resembling the Venus of Monruz (see below), discovered about 120 kilometres from the Monruz, but is dated 3000 years older.

Venus of Monruz/Neuchatel (Swiss)
Date: 10,000 BCE
Material: Black Jet
Magdalenian pendant (1-inch tall), of a stylized human figure. Found in 1991 in Neuchatel, Switzerland. See: Magdalenian Art (15,000-10,000 BCE).

Late Stone Age
For a later masterpiece of prehistoric sculpture, see the extraordinary Thinker of Cernavoda (5000 BCE, National Museum of Romania).

• For murals, see also: Cave Painting
• For the history and facts about the origins of painting and sculpture, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.


ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE ART
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