Venus Figurines as Early Human Sculptural Art

Who made Venus figurines and what were they used for?

The Venus Of Dolni Vestonice
The Venus of Dolni Vestonice is about 29,000 years old, found at a Paleolithic site in the Moravian basin south of Czech city Brno and one of the oldest known ceramic objects in the world. Matej Divizna / Getty Images

A "Venus figurine" (with or without the capital V) is the name given to a type of figural art produced by humans between about 35,000 and 9,000 years ago. While the stereotypical Venus figurine is a small carved statue of a voluptuous female with large body parts and no head or face to speak of, those carvings are considered part of a larger cadre of portable art plaques and two- and three-dimensional carvings of men, children, and animals as well as women in all stages of life.

Over 200 of these statuettes have been found, made of clay, ivory, bone, antler, or carved stone. They were all found at sites left behind by hunter-gatherer societies of the European and Asian late Pleistocene (or Upper Paleolithic) periods during the last gasp of the last Ice Age, the Gravettian, Solutrean, and Aurignacian periods. Their remarkable variety—and yet persistence—within this 25,000 year period continues to amaze researchers.

The Venus and Modern Human Nature

One of the reasons you're reading this may be because images of the physicality of women are an important part of modern human cultures. Whether your specific modern culture permits the exposure of the female form or not, the uninhibited depiction of women with large breasts and detailed genitals seen in the ancient art is nearly irresistible to all of us.

Nowell and Chang (2014) compiled a list of modern-day attitudes reflected in the media (and scholarly literature).

This list is derived from their study, and it includes five points that we should keep in mind when considering Venus figurines in general.

  • Venus figurines were not necessarily made by men for men
  • Men are not the only ones aroused by visual stimuli
  • Only some of the figurines are female
  • The figurines that are female have considerable variation in size and body shape
  • We don't know that Paleolithic systems necessarily recognized only two genders
  • We don't know that being unclothed was necessarily erotic in Paleolithic periods

We simply cannot know for certain what was in the minds of Paleolithic people or who made the figurines and why.

Consider the Context

Nowell and Chang suggest instead that we should consider the figurines separately, within their archaeological context (burials, ritual pits, refuse areas, living areas, etc.), and compare them to other artwork rather than as a separate category of "erotica" or "fertility" art or ritual. The details that we seem to focus on—big breasts and explicit genitals—obscure the finer elements of the art for a lot of us. One notable exception is a paper by Soffer and colleagues (2002), who examined the evidence for the use of netted fabrics drawn as clothing features on the figurines.

Another non-sex-charged study is by Canadian archaeologist Alison Tripp (2016), who looked at examples of Gravettian-era figurines and suggested similarities in the central Asian group indicate some kind social interaction among them. That interaction is also reflected in similarities in site layouts, lithic inventories, and material culture.

The Oldest Venus

The oldest Venus found to date was recovered from the Aurignacian levels of Hohle Fels in southwestern Germany, in the lowest-most Aurignacian layer, made between 35,000-40,000 cal BP.

The Hohle Fels carved ivory art collection included four figurines: a horse's head, a half-lion/half-human being, a water bird, and a woman. The female figurine was in six fragments, but when the fragments were reassembled they were revealed to be the nearly complete sculpture of a voluptuous woman (her left arm is missing) and in place of her head is a ring, enabling the object to be worn as a pendant.

Function and Meaning

Theories about the function of Venus figurines abound in the literature. Different scholars have argued that the figurines might have been used as emblems for membership in a goddess religion, teaching materials for children, votive images, good luck totems during childbirth, and even sex toys for men.

The images themselves have also been interpreted in many ways. Different scholars suggest they were realistic images of what women looked like 30,000 years ago, or ancient ideals of beauty, or fertility symbols, or portrait images of specific priestesses or ancestors.

Who Made Them?

A statistical analysis of the waist to hip ratio for 29 of the figurines was conducted by Tripp and Schmidt (2013), who found that there was considerable regional variation. Magdalenian statuettes were much curvier than the others, but also more abstract. Tripp and Schmidt conclude that although it could be argued that Paleolithic males preferred heavier set and less curvy females, there is no evidence to identify the gender of the persons who made the objects or who used them.

However, American art historian LeRoy McDermott has suggested that the figurines may have been self-portraits made by women, arguing that the body parts were exaggerated because if an artist don't have a mirror, her body is distorted from her viewpoint.

Venus Examples

  • Russia: Ma'lta, Avdeevo, New Avdeevo, Kostenki I, Kohtylevo, Zaraysk, Gagarino, Eliseevichi
  • France: Laussel, Brassempouy, Lespugue, Abri Murat, Gare de Couze
  • Austria: Willendorf
  • Switzerland: Monruz
  • Germany: Hohle Fels, Gönnersdorf, Monrepos
  • Italy: Balzi Rossi, Barma Grande
  • Czech Republic: Dolni Vestonice, Moravany, Pekárna
  • Poland: Wilczyce, Petrkovice, Pavlov
  • Greece: Avaritsa

Sources