Female carvings are known throughout the European Upper Palaeolithic and are collectively known as Venus figurines, though they predate the Roman goddess by tens of millennia. They are chiefly associated with the Gravettian period, though they are also known from the preceding Aurignacian. The earliest currently known is the 35,000 year old Hohle Fels Venus, a mammoth-ivory figurine recovered in 2008 at Fohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of south-western Germany.
Typically lozenge-shaped, these figurines are characterised by exaggerated sexual characteristics, with very large breasts, accentuated hips, thighs and buttocks, and large, explicit vulvas. Other anatomical details tend to be neglected; especially arms and feet, and the heads generally lack facial detail. The contrast with the classical portrayal of Venus could not be greater. The figurines are carved from materials including mammoth ivory, serpentine, steatite or limestone and are often coloured with ochre. Others are made from fired clay, making them among the earliest known ceramics. Many have engraved or incised patterns, which may represent hair and clothing.
Left. The Willendorf Venus (left) is carved from limestone and tinted with red ochre. It was discovered in 1908 near Willendorf, Austria and now resides in the Museum of Natural History, Vienna.
Centre. The ivory Lespugue Venus (centre) was discovered in 1922 at the Rideaux cave of Lespugue (Haute-Garonne) in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and is now displayed in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.
Right. The ceramic Dolní Věstonice Venus (right) was discovered in 1925 in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic). It is not currently on permanent display to the public.
The figurines are between 22,000 to 29,000 years old.
Since the first examples were discovered in the 19th Century, many have attained iconic status. These include the Venus of Willendorf, which is 11.1cm (4 3/8 in) high and carved from oolitic limestone. The statue was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy near the village of Willendorf in Austria, which is associated with the Gravettian period and now resides in the Natural History Museum Vienna.
The figurines are often interpreted as fertility figures, mother goddesses etc, but their real function is unknown. One novel suggestion, by anthropologists Leroy McDermott and Catherine Hodge McCoid, is that they may be self-portrayals of pregnant women. They note likenesses between a photograph of a “Venus” figurine viewed from above and one of a pregnant woman standing with her feet together, viewed from her own perspective looking down on her breasts and abdomen The theory has met with a certain amount of scepticism, but McDermott and McCoid argue that it provides a parsimonious explanation for the features found in representations of the female form from the Upper Palaeolithic.
(This article first appeared on my blog http://www.christopherseddon.com on 3 October 2010)