Venus figurine  

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Venus figurines is an umbrella term for a number of prehistoric statuettes of women sharing common attributes (many depicted as apparently obese or pregnant) from the Upper Palaeolithic, mostly found in Europe, but with finds as far east as Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, extending their distribution to much of Eurasia, from the Pyrenees to Lake Baikal. Most of them date to the Gravettian period, but there are a number of early examples from the Aurignacian, including the Venus of Hohle Fels, discovered in 2008, carbon dated to at least 35,000 years ago, and late examples of the Magdalenian, such as the Venus of Monruz, aged about 11,000 years.

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.

The term has also been extended forward in time to designate similar figurines from the Neolithic period.


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, connected with the occupants of the dwelling. At Mal'ta, near Lake Baikal, 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).

The apparent obesity of the figures strongly implies a focus on fertility as, at the time of their construction, human society had not yet invented farming and did not have ready access to rich or plentiful foodstuffs. An image of excess weight may have symbolized a yearning for plenty and security. Nevertheless, the widespread theories concerning a possible fertility cult or a Mother Goddess are entirely speculative and cannot be scientifically evaluated.

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; the other, the Venus of Tan-Tan, in Morocco. Both pieces remain controversial. In any case, both are at best very cursorily and marginally carved, at worst simply natural, their anthropomorphic appearance being coincidence.

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.

Notable specimens

name age (kya, approx.) location material
Venus of Hohle Fels 35–40 Swabian Alb, Germany mammoth ivory
Venus of Galgenberg 30 Lower Austria serpentine rock
Venus of Dolní Věstonice 27–31 Moravia, Czech Republicceramic
Venus of Lespugue 24–26French Pyreneesivory
Venus of Willendorf 24–26Lower Austrialimestone
Venus of Mal'ta23 Irkutsk Oblast, Russiaivory
Venus of Moravany 23Záhorie, Slovakiamammoth ivory
Venus of Brassempouy22Aquitaine, Franceivory
Venus of Laussel20Dordogne, France limestone relief
Venus of Monruz11Switzerlandblack jet

See also

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