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 (between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago), mostly found in Europe, but with finds as far east as Siberia, extending their distribution to much of Eurasia.

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.

The first Upper Paleolithic representation of a woman was discovered about 1864 in France by the Marquis de Vibraye, where initial archaeological surveys had already been undertaken; Vibraye named his find the Vénus impudique (‘immodest’), a knowing contrast to the modest Venus Pudica Hellenistic type. The Venus is headless, footless, armless but with a strongly incised vaginal opening.

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 figurines was preoccupied with identifying the race being represented; and the steatopygous fascination of Sartje Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’ exhibited as a living ethnographic curiosity in a Paris ‘freak show’ early in the nineteenth century.

In 2008, archaeologists discovered a 6 cm figurine woman carved from a mammoth’s tusk in Germany, 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 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. 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. They rarely show signs of pregnancy, childbirth or lactation.

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.

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 color may just represent life. The figurines carved towards the end of the Upper Paleolithic display finer detail; conventional stylization also develops.

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 Great Goddess or 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 (good luck charms), connected with the occupants of the dwelling. 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.

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 in Israel; the other, the Venus of Tan-Tan, in Morocco. Both pieces 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. Such views have been contested on numerous grounds, not least the general absence of such depictions during the intervening Mesolithic.

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