The Venus of Willendorf is a small 11.1 cm (4 3/8 in) high figurine carved from oolitic limestone and tinted with red ochre.
The 25,000-year-old figurine dates to the Gravettian period and is one of the most iconic artefacts of the European Upper Palaeolithic. It was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy near the village of Willendorf in Austria, and since then it has resided in the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna. It is currently on display in the Mineralogy galleries, having been relocated there while the Prehistory galleries undergo refurbishment. I took the photographs of the front, side and rear views when I visited the museum during a recent trip to Vienna. From a personal point of view, the enigmatic figurine did much to spark my interest in prehistory, so I was very keen to see it in person for the first time.
With its large breasts, full figure and exaggerated sexual characteristics, the contrast between the Venus of Willendorf and the classical portrayal of the Roman goddess could not be greater. Yet there is nothing crude or primitive about its execution; it is immediately obvious that the figurine is as finely-worked as anything from classical times.
The face is concealed behind rows of plaited hair, which comprise seven concentric bands surrounding the head, with two more semi-circular bands below at the back of the neck. Another interpretation is that the figurine is wearing a woven fibre hat.
Female figurines with similar attributes are known dating to throughout the European Upper Palaeolithic, though most are from the Gravettian period. Despite its obvious inaccuracy, the term ‘Venus figurines’ has been used to describe them since the first examples were found in the nineteenth century. They are often interpreted as fertility figures or mother goddesses, although their real function remains unknown.