“Venus figurine” is an umbrella term for a number of prehistoric statuettes of women portrayed with similar physical attributes. “Venus figurine” is the name given to a nearly universal type of art, appearing first in the Upper Paleolithic period between 31,000 and 9,000 years ago. Archaeologically they are known from the earliest horizons of the Aurignacian (37,000 to 27,000 years ago) and extend to the end of the Magdalenian (17,000 to 12,000 years ago). Venus figurines have been found in Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine, and as far east as Lake Baikal in Siberia. In appearance most are plump little creatures with exaggerated female characteristics: large breasts, thighs and buttocks. These figurines were carved from soft stone (such as steatite, calcite or limestone), bone or ivory, or formed with clay and fired. Most of them are roughly diamond-shaped, with two tapering terminals at top (head) and bottom (legs) and the widest point in the middle (hips/belly). Although the typical Venus figurine is traditionally assumed to be a voluptuous female, men, children, and animals are also depicted. Venus figurines have been found throughout Europe and Asia at sites such as Willendorf (Austria), Brassempouy (France), Hohle Fels (Germany) and Dolni Vestonice (Czech Republic). There are many different interpretations of the figurines, but like many prehistoric artifacts, the cultural meaning of these artifacts may never be known. The Venus of Brassempouy or La Dame de Brassempouy, a fragmentary ivory figurine from the Upper Palaeolithic discovered in the Grotte du Pape at Brassempouy, France in 1892, by Édouard Piette, is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human face.
Carved in mammoth ivory, Venus de Brassempouy is only 3.65 cm high, just over 2 cm deep and 1.9 cm wide. Her triangular face has a forehead, nose and brows that were carved in relief, but a mouth was not included. The vertical crack on the right side of her face is a result of the internal structure of the ivory. On her head is a checkerboard-like pattern formed by a series of shallow incisions at right angles to each other that have been variously interpreted as a representation of her hair, a wig, or even a hood. Among Venus figures there are few human faces shown in more than 15,000 years. The face of this woman is considered the oldest but also the most beautiful. And most scholars, usually so reserved, talk about how moving the Brassempouy face becomes. As for those who would imagine prehistoric man as a brute animal, they watch and contemplate the face. Sculpted 25,000 years ago, the artist of this tiny fragment of mammoth ivory comes down through the ages and tells us of the beauty and youth of our oldest humanity. It shows us with his/her eyes, his/her intelligence and his/her hand, the pinnacle of art with a chisel of Gravettian stone. It does not tell us why he/she made that face. We do not know her name. The artist and the lady Brassempouy say to all of us a transcendence, a face he/she beheld, and, after millennia, exposes us to the mystery of true beauty.
In 1894 excavations in a cave known as la Grotte du Pape, just outside the southern French village of Brassempouy, archaeologists recovered what must surely be one of the most well known faces of the Upper Palaeolithic – the Venus de Brassempouy. She was accompanied by at least eight other human figures. These may be an example of unfinished work, as if artist(s) carved several figurines at the same time. P.E. Dubalen first explored the Grotte du Pape in 1881, followed by J. de Laporterie and Édouard Piette (1827–1906) from 1894 onwards. Since archaeological excavation techniques were then only starting to develop, they paid little attention to the stratigraphy of the site containing the remains. In 1892 the site was pillaged and disturbed almost beyond reconstruction by a field trip of amateurs from the Association Française pour l’avancement de la Science. Nevertheless, Piette described layers attributed to the late and middle Solutrean. He termed the bottom levels he reached as éburnéen (pale or white like ivory), in reference to the copious amounts of ivory works which they contained. Modern reanalysis of the site has been undertaken under the direction of Henri Delporte, 1981–2000. In 1894, one of those strata, today recognized as Gravettian, yielded several fragments of female statuettes, including the ‘Lady with the Hood’. Piette saw the figures as closely related to the representations of animals of the Magdalenian. He developed a hypothetical chronology that was later refuted by Henri Breuil.
These maps give you an idea of the positions of the finds and the location of Brassempouy in southwestern France.
La Poire is a figurine of mammoth ivory of which only the corpulent torso survives, found in 1892 in the ‘Grotte du Pape’ at Brassempouy in the Department of Les Landes and now in the Musée St. Germain-en-Laye. The name ‘Venus’ for this figurine was subsequently adopted by Édouard Piette (1827-1906). She was originally nicknamed la poire – ‘the pear’ – on account of her shape. For Piette, the name ‘Venus’ may have come to mind in this particular instance because of the emphatic treatment of the vulva’s labia and the prominent, slightly protruding pubic area, which he tastefully refers to as ‘le mont de Vénus’ – the mound of Venus (or mons pubis). ‘Venus’ has since become the collective term used to identify all obese Palaeolithic statuettes of women. The color of my photo is slightly green, perhaps it was the lighting but in any case it is made of Ivory. Note the tattoos on the side of the breast.
The figurine fragment known as L’Ébauche, (the rough-out), was found during the AFAS excursion of September 19, 1892.
This is a figurine of a girl, made with just a few blows of the flint. It is a child’s toy. She has no arms, and probably never had feet. She is naked, and her hair is long. The sex is shown.
This piece seems to have been a knife handle. The breasts are cylindrical and pendant, the belly is large and hanging. The depression of the spine in the middle of the back is well shown. Huge protuberances of fat cover the hips and descend a little lower than the place where the buttocks should arise. These are completely lacking. The obligation of the artist was to make a convenient handle for a knife, and was forced to sacrifice the truth of some aspects of the sculpture. Thus the torso, as a result of the transition of the back to the blade, lacks thickness, and the buttocks have been suppressed. A woman with this physical makeup would have been very uncomfortable in a seated position. The sculpture is true to the shape of the breasts, the development of the stomach and the lumps of fat on the hips.
The sexual organs are not shown distinctly here, and this suggests that they are not those of a man, for artists of all time, even those of Greece and our own sculptors represent man with all the attributes of manhood, and they would not have thought differently at a time when all went naked, and where feelings of shame would not be very well developed. People who have viewed this statuette generally consider it to be that of a woman whose Mount of Venus is very prominent and placed very low, although I personally dissagree. The sexual organs of women are not visible when standing. The artist, by omitting them, would be consistent with reality.
Fragment of the torso of a figure wearing a cape. The arm in bas relief is folded across the chest. Sculptors had recognized how fragile arms are when they are detached from the trunk, and they used bas relief to represent them. The arm tapers in thickness from the shoulder to the elbow.
This Gravettian figurine was found during the 1896 excavations by Édouard Piette and J. de Laporterie. It was found in the upper part of the figurines layer, 4 or 5 cm above a fireplace. The chip in the stomach was lost in antiquity.
On the Liguria coast, close to the French border, are the entrances of the complex of the caverns of the Balzi Rossi (literally red leaps). The name of the locality derives from the color of the limestone walls that, because of the iron mineral presence oxidises to a red colour. The complex is composed of numerous coves and shelters, including Grotta dei Fanciulli, Riparo Lorenzi, Grotta di Florestano, Grotta del Caviglione, Barma Grande, Barma del Bauso da Ture (now destroyed), Grotta del Principe, Grotta Gerbai, Grotta Costantini, Riparo Mochi, Riparo Bombrini, cavernette della cava, Grotta Voronov, and Grotta Grimaldi. The first searches occurred in 1846-57, by the prince of Monaco, Florestano I. More recently, between 1928 and 1959, regular diggings were executed by A.C. Blanc, L. Cardini and To Mochi, on behalf of the Italian Institute of Human Palaeontology. Louis Alexandre Jullien discovered, between 1883 and 1895, about fifteen figurines, the greatest series ever found in only one place in Western Europe.
The Venus of Polichinelle, carved in green steatite, length 61 mm, 27,000 years old, found at Grimaldi. The pronounced buttocks and the projecting belly gave it the name Punchinello, but some see in it a woman about to give birth. Punchinello, or Polichinelle in French, is the short fat buffoon or clown in an Italian puppet show.Steatite, or soapstone, is one of the easiest and most rewarding materials to use for carving. Many people would be familiar with the similar stone used by the Canadian Inuit. It is not only easy to carve, it takes a good polish.
The Undescribed Figurine is of opaque green soapstone. The oval head and the torso are of normal form and proportions, but the facial features are sketchy, with just sockets for eyes and the outline of a nose. The neck is well formed, the breasts, highly elongated from top to bottom, are separated from each other and the rest of the chest by very deep incisions. Two other deep incisions separate the trunk from the mass of the buttocks, strongly projected backwards, giving the small of the back a very high arch, similar to that of the Polichinelle and the statues of Tursac and Sireuil.
The Hermaphrodite, so named by Piette, probably has the same origin as the Losange Venus and the Polichinelle Venus and was also acquired and published by Piette (MAN, no 49.280). The statuette, of translucent green soapstone, is badly damaged: the head is broken off, a flake removed from the back of the thighs and lower buttocks, and it has also been broken into three pieces that were glued together. As it stands, the figure is 52 mm high, 17 mm wide and 11 mm thick, and the maximum dimensions are at the pelvis.
The Losange Venus is made of green steatite (fired soapstone). The head is pointed, with a lack of facial features. There is a groove marking the outline of the hair. The breasts are elongated and large. There are no arms. The protruding belly is circular in shape, and the venus has wide hips, and the buttocks are flattened. The vulva is open, and is shown from a gynecological perspective. The legs are tapering, and no knees are indicated. The legs finish or are broken off above the position of the feet. The triangular shape is indicative of the Venus Figure morphology.
The Negroid Venus Head, in slightly fibrous green soapstone, has a surface which is polished and worn, especially the face. The base is polished and worn, which suggests that the object was already an isolated head in the Paleolithic. The piece measures 24 mm in height, 24.5 mm front to back and 15 mm maximum width, and is therefore relatively flat and has a protruding chignon of hair. The facial features are strikingly represented: there is a receding forehead with massive eyebrows and deep eye sockets. The nose is not present, it may be worn away, but most likely its depiction was prohibited by the shape of the piece of stone used. The cheekbones are strong, and the mouth is rendered by two small horizontal incisions aligned at the bottom of a depression, limited by a weak but clearly marked chin. The coiffure, largely destroyed, is represented by a grid reminiscent of the Venus of Brassempouy and that of the Femme à la tête quadrillée, from Laussel. The coiffure is represented by a series of incisions starting at the forehead, over the bun or chignon and back down onto the neck, cut by transverse incisions, the first of which form a kind of band above the forehead. As for the Dame de Brassempouy, Piette has sought rapprochement with the hair of Egyptian pharaohs and tried to make this head evidence for the existence of a Grimaldi Negroid population. Text above translated and adapted from Delporte (1993)/ Don’s Maps.
This figure was on loan to the British Museum for an exhibit, Ice Age Art when we visited. The Venus of Menton is a figurine in yellow steatite (soapstone) from Grimaldi. The figure is naked, breasts, abdomen and buttocks are prominent, the pubis and vulva are well marked. The arms are fused with the bust. The head is in the form of a ball, and extends down the back via the hair. It resembles many other venus figures from the upper European Palaeolithic. It was found in the 1880s in the Barma Grande and acquired by Salomon Reinach in 1896 for the French MNA. Louis Alexandre Jullien was an antique dealer from Marseilles who discovered fifteen small sculptures from the excavations he led between 1883 and 1895 in the caves of Grimaldi, Liguria, Italy, a group of well-known sites of the Upper Paleolithic on the Mediterranean coast adjacent to the French border. In 1896, Jullien sold the ‘yellow steatite statuette’ (Venus of Menton) to Salomon Reinach’s Musee des Antiquités Nationales (MAN) in Saint Germain-en-Laye. Six others (five in 1897 and one in 1903) were sold to the famous pre-historian and collector of Paleolithic art, Edouard Piette, who later left his entire collection to MAN in 1906.
The ‘Venus of Sireuil’ (MAN 75664), carved into an amber calcite pebble like Tursac, was found in the rut of a road from the Goulet de Cazelle near Sireuil village (Breuil et Peyrony 1930). The head was damaged as well as the upper limbs. The lower limbs terminate in ‘spheres’, similar to Milandes and Pataud. The back, largely natural, is arched and the abdomen is thrown forward as is the Milandes. Buttocks and thighs were highlighted by an engraved line marking the waistline and the crease between the abdomen and thighs. A few flints were found in the vicinity, including an alleged Aurignacian carinated scraper, but the dating of this sculpture is still very uncertain. Although it is much more elaborate than the statue of Milandes, there are some morphological similarities (in profile) and techniques between these two objects. The Venus of Sireuil, 90 mm high is slightly taller than that of Milandes. (White, R. , 2002)
Roc-aux-Sorciers is an Upper Paleolithic rock shelter site dating to the mid-Magdalenian cultural stage, from 14000 BP, made famous by its relief wall carvings. The site is in the French commune of Angles-sur-l’Anglin, in Vienne. The name ‘Sorcerers’ Rock’, with its suggestions of pagan rendez-vous, was applied to the site long before the wall-carvings were discovered. The south-facing rock-shelter at the base of the slopes of the Douce, above the right bank of the Anglin, about 1.5 km above the village, is composed of two geologically distinct sections; below is the Abri Bourdois, a classic rock-shelter site beneath a slight overhang, and above is the Cave Taillebourg, a deeper vestibule. The two parts are separated by a zone that has not yet been excavated, kept in reserve. The site was classed a Monument Historique in 1955.
There are many more Venus figurines stretching across Europe. This is only the collection I found at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale, Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Surprisingly, despite the notoriety of the statuettes, they were poorly curated and labeled as statues of women in a small group in the paleography section of the museum.. Were it not for the hard work and scholarship of Don Hitchcock at Don’s Maps, this post may have never appeared, his insights and collections of material and photographs allowed me to make sense of a complex subject. I intend to publish more Venus figurines as I find them in museums and I hope that you, as I do, find them some of the most fascinating aspects of our ancient past. The fact that both Neaderthals and Humans found time in their basic needs of shelter and food speaks volumes in the role of the arts today. Art is not a luxury, it is a necessity, a legacy to our children and the children of the future.
Venus Figures Dons Maps: http://www.donsmaps.com/venus.html
Map of Brassempouy: Goutas, N., Simonet A., 2009: Le secteur GG2 de la grotte du Pape à Brassempouy (Landes) : un dépôt intentionnel d’armes gravettiennes ?, Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, 2009, tome 106, No 2, p. 257-291
Figurine à la pèlerine – Figurine dressed in a cape: Piette, E., Laporterie J., 1894: Les fouilles de Brassempouy en 1894, Bulletins de la Société d’anthropologie de Paris, IV° Série, tome 5, 1894. pp. 633-648.
Piette, E., Laporterie J., 1894: Les fouilles de Brassempouy en 1894, Bulletins de la Société d’anthropologie de Paris, IV° Série, tome 5, 1894. pp. 633-648.
White, R. , 2002: Une nouvelle statuette phallo-féminine paléolithique: ‘La venus des Milandes’ (commune de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Dordogne), Paleo N° 14 Décembre 2002 – Pages 177 à 198.
White, R., Bisson M., 1998: Imagerie féminine du Paléolithique : l’apport des nouvelles statuettes de Grimaldi, Gallia préhistoire. Tome 40, 1998. pp. 95-132.
Cohen C., 2003: La femme des origines. Images de la femme dans la préhistoire occidentale,, Paris, Belin-Herscher, 2003, 191 pages.
Roc aux Sorciers: http://www.catalogue-roc-aux-sorciers.fr/
Roc aux Sorciers upper Cave: http://ushishir.tumblr.com/post/674127014/venus-4-from-le-roc-aux-sorciers-cave-upper
Ancient Wisdom: http://www.ancient-wisdom.co.uk/venusfigures.htm