Venus of Willendorf
Venus of Hohle Fels, the earliest Venus figurine

A Venus figurine is any Upper Palaeolithic statue portraying a woman, usually carved in the round.[1] Most have been unearthed in Europe, but others have been found as far away as Siberia and distributed across much of Eurasia.

Most date from the Gravettian period (26,000–21,000 years ago).[1] However, findings are not limited to this period; for example, the Venus of Hohle Fels dates back at least 35,000 years to the Aurignacian era, and the Venus of Monruz dates back about 11,000 years to the Magdalenian. Such 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 to historians. In total, over 200 such figurines are known;[2] virtually all of modest size, between about 3 and 40 cm (1.2 and 15.7 in) in height.[3] These figurines are recognised as some of the earliest works of prehistoric art.

Most have wide hips and legs that taper to a point. Arms and feet are often absent, and the head is usually small and faceless. Various figurines exaggerate the abdomen, hips, breasts, thighs, or vulva, although many found examples do not reflect these typical characteristics. Depictions of hairstyles can be detailed, and clothing or tattoos may be indicated.[4]

The original cultural meaning and purpose of these artefacts is not known. It has frequently been suggested that they may have served a ritual or symbolic function. There are widely varying and speculative interpretations of their use or meaning: they have been seen as religious figures,[5] an expression of health and fertility, grandmother goddesses, or as self-depictions by female artists.[6]

History of discovery

The Vénus impudique, which was the figurine that gave the whole category its name, was the first Palaeolithic sculptural representation of a woman to be discovered in modern times. It was found in 1864 by Paul Hurault, 8th Marquis de Vibraye at Laugerie-Basse in the Vézère valley. This valley is one of the many important Stone Age sites in and around the commune of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in Dordogne, southwestern France. The figurines were mostly discovered in settlement contexts, both in open-air sites and caves.[1] The Magdalenian Venus from Laugerie-Basse is headless, footless, armless, and displays a strongly emphasised vulva.[7]

Four years later, Salomon Reinach published an article about a group of soapstone figurines from the caves of Balzi Rossi. The famous Venus of Willendorf was excavated in 1908 from a loess deposit in the Danube valley located in Austria.[citation needed] Since then, hundreds of similar figurines have been discovered from the Pyrenees Mountains to the plains of Siberia.[8]

In September 2008, archaeologists from the University of Tübingen discovered a 6 cm (2.4 in) figurine carved from a mammoth's tusk. This figurine was later called the Venus of Hohle Fels and can be dated to at least 35,000 years ago. It represents the earliest known sculpture of this type and the earliest known work of figurative art.[9]


Vénus impudique, 1907 drawing

Upper Palaeolithic female figurines are collectively described as "Venus figurines" in reference to the Roman goddess of beauty Venus. The name was first used in the mid-nineteenth century by the Marquis de Vibraye, who discovered an ivory figurine and named it La Vénus impudique or Venus Impudica ("immodest Venus").[10] The Marquis then contrasted the ivory figurine to the Aphrodite Of Knidos, a Greco-Roman sculpture depicting Venus covering her naked body with both her hands.[10] In the early 20th century, the general belief among scholars was that the figurines represent an ancient ideal of beauty. Since their discovery, considerable diversity in opinion amongst archaeologists and in palaeoanthropological literature has arisen as to the function and significance of the figures.[11] Most scholars that have differing opinions on the purpose of the figurines, such as anthropologist Randall White, also disapprove of the "Venus" name as a result.[12]

The use of the name is metaphorical as there is no link between the ancient figurines and the Roman goddess Venus; although they have been interpreted as representations of a primordial female goddess. This perception is said to have derived from the fact that attention is directed to certain features common to most of the figurines, in particular emotionally charged primary and secondary sexual characteristics such as the breasts, stomachs and buttocks.[13] The term has been criticised for being a reflection of modern Western ideas rather than reflecting the beliefs of the sculptures' original owners, but the original names are unknown as well, so the term Venus has persisted.[14]

Like many prehistoric artefacts, the exact cultural meaning of these figures may never be known. Archaeologists speculate, however, that they may be symbolic of security and success, fertility, or a mother goddess.[15] The female figures are a part of Upper Palaeolithic art, specifically the category of Palaeolithic art known as portable art.

Figure details

Venus of Dolní Věstonice, the earliest discovered use of ceramics[16] (29,000 – 25,000 BCE)

The majority of Venus figurines are depictions of women, and follow artistic conventions of the times. Most of the figurines display the same body shape with the widest point at the abdomen and the female reproductive organs exaggerated. Oftentimes other details, such as the head and limbs, are neglected or absent which leads the figure to be abstracted to the point of simplicity. The heads are often of relatively small size and devoid of detail. Some may represent pregnant women, while others show no indication of pregnancy.[17]

The Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Laussel (a rock relief rather than a figurine) bear traces of having been externally covered in red ochre. The significance of this is not clear, but is traditionally assumed to be religious or ritual in nature. Some human bodies from the Palaeolithic era are found similarly covered, so it is assumed this colour had a significant meaning in their culture even though we do not know what.[18]

All generally accepted Palaeolithic female figurines are from the Upper Palaeolithic. Although they were originally mostly considered part of the Aurignacian culture, the majority are now associated with the Gravettian and Solutrean cultures.[19] In these periods, the more rotund figurines are predominant. Within the Magdalenian cultures, the forms become finer with more detail and the styling of said figures started to become similar within areas of close contact.[citation needed]


Despite being thought as one of the most 'fertile sources of debate in all of archaeology', Venus figurines appear to be relatively understudied as a whole.[12] A consequence of this is that they are subject to generalised stereotypes that minimize morphological variation and differing contexts.[12] Nevertheless, there have been many differing interpretations of the figurines since their discovery.[1]

McCoid and McDermott suggested that because of the way these figures are depicted, such as the large breasts and lack of feet and faces, these statues were made by women looking at their own bodies. They state that women during the period would not have had access to mirrors to maintain accurate proportions or depict the faces or heads of the figurines. The theory remains difficult to prove or disprove, and Michael S. Bisson suggested that alternatives, such as puddles, could have been used as mirrors.[20]

It has also been suggested that the size and shape of the figures makes them suitable for holding through childbirth.

It has been suggested that they may be a sign of an earlier prevalence of steatopygia, now associated principally to women of certain African or Andamanese ancestry. However the Venuses do not qualify as steatopygian, since they exhibit an angle of approximately 120 degrees between the back and the buttocks, while steatopygia is diagnosed by modern medical standards at an angle of about 90 degrees only.[21]

Another modern interpretation, providing an explanation for visible weight variety amongst the figurines, comes from Johnson et al.[22] Here, they argue that differences in the statues can be said to relate to human adaption to climate change. This is because figurines that are seen to be obese or pregnant originate to the earlier art from 38,000 to 14,000 BP - a period where nutritional stress arose as a result of falling temperatures.[22] Accordingly, they found a correlation between an increase in distance from glacial fronts and a decrease in obesity of the figurines. This was justified as survival and reproduction, in glacial, colder areas, required sufficient nutrition and, consequently, over-nourished woman may have been seen as the ideal of beauty in these areas.[22]

In the book, Emergence of the Goddess, the author [who?] argues that the consistency in design of these featureless, large-breasted, often pregnant figures throughout a wide region and over a long period of time suggests they represent an archetype of a female Supreme Creator. Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age inhabitants likely connected women as creators innately tied to the cycles of nature.[23]

Later female figurines and continuity

Neolithic fertility figurines
Fertility figurine of the Halaf culture, Mesopotamia, 6000-5100 BCE. Louvre.[24]
Fertility figurine from Mehrgarh, Indus Valley, c. 3000 BCE.[25]
All part of the Neolithic "Venus figurines" tradition, the abundant breasts and hips of these figurines suggest links to fertility and procreation.

Some scholars suggest a direct continuity between Palaeolithic female figurines and later examples of female depictions from the Neolithic or Bronze Age.[26]

A female figurine which has "no practical use and is portable" and has the common elements of a Venus figurine (a strong accent or exaggeration of female sex-linked traits, and the lack of complete lower limbs) may be considered to be a Venus figurine, even if archaeological evidence suggests it was produced after the main Palaeolithic period. Some figurines matching this definition originate from the Neolithic era and into the Bronze Age. The period and location in which a figurine was produced helps guide archaeologists to reach conclusions as to whether the art piece found can be defined as a Venus figurine or not. For example, ceramic figurines from the late ceramic Neolithic may be accepted as Venus figurines, while stone figurines from later periods are not. This is a matter of ongoing debate given the strong similarity between many figurines from the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and beyond. A reworked endocast of a brachiopod from around 6,000 BCE in Norway has been identified as a late Venus figurine.[27]

This means that a given female figurine may or may not be classified as a Venus figure by any given archaeologist, regardless of its date, though most archaeologists disqualify figurines which date later than the Palaeolithic, even though their purpose could have been the same.[citation needed]

Notable figurines

Name Age (approx.) Location of discovery Material Year of discovery
Venus of Tan-Tan (disputed) 300,000–500,000 Tan-Tan, Morocco Quartzite 1999
Venus of Berekhat Ram (disputed) 230,000–280,000 Lake Ram, Golan Heights Scoria 1981
Venus of Hohle Fels 35,000–40,000 Swabian Alb, Germany mammoth ivory 2008
Venus of Galgenberg 30,000 Lower Austria serpentine rock 1988
Venus of Dolní Věstonice 27,000–31,000 Moravia, Czech Republic ceramic 1925
Venus of Mauern 27,000 Mauern, Germany limestone 1948
Venus of Laussel 25,000 Southern France limestone, but a relief 1911
Venus of Lespugue 24,000–26,000 French Pyrenees ivory 1922
Venus of Willendorf 24,000–26,000 Lower Austria limestone 1908
Venus of Brassempouy 23,000–25,000 Brassempouy, France ivory 1892
Venus of Moravany 23,000 Moravany nad Váhom, Slovakia mammoth ivory 1930
Venus of Petřkovice 23,000 Silesia, Czech Republic hematite 1953
Venus figurines of Mal'ta 23,000 Irkutsk Oblast, Russia ivory 1928
Venuses of Buret' 20,000–21,000 Irkutsk Oblast, Russia ivory, serpentine rock 1936 - 1940
Venus figurines of Kostenki 20,000–25,000 Kostyonki–Borshchyovo, Russia ivory 1988
Venus of Savignano 20,000–25,000 Savignano sul Panaro, Italy serpentine rock 1925
Venus figurines of Gagarino 20,000–21,000 Lipetsk Oblast, Russia ivory 1926
Venus figurines of Balzi Rossi 18,000–25,000 Ventimiglia, Italy ivory, soapstone, serpentine, chlorite 1883 - 1895
Vénus impudique 16,000 Laugerie-Basse, France ivory 1864
Venus of Waldstetten 15,000 Waldstetten, Germany Quartzite 2015
Venus of Eliseevichi 15,000 Bryansk, Russia ivory 1930
Venus figurines of Zaraysk 14,000–20,000 Zaraysk, Russia ivory 2005
Venus figurines of Gönnersdorf 11,500–15,000 Neuwied, Germany ivory, antler, bone 1968 - 1976
Venus figurines of Petersfels 11,500–15,000 Engen, Germany black jet 1927- 1932,

1974 - 1976, 1978

Venus of Monruz 11,000 Neuchâtel, Switzerland black jet 1991

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Fagan, Brian M., Beck, Charlotte, "Venus Figurines", The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, 1996, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195076189 pp. 740–741
  2. ^ Holloway
  3. ^ Fagan, 740
  4. ^ "Clothing of figurines may be record of Ice Age tribes' skills". Archived from the original on 2021-01-21. Retrieved 2019-11-13.
  5. ^ Beck, 207-208
  6. ^ William Haviland, Harald Prins, Dana Walrath, Bunny McBride, Anthropology: The Human Challenge, 13th edition, 2010, Cengage Learning, ISBN 0495810843, 9780495810841,google books; Cook; Beck, 205-208
  7. ^ White, Randall (December 2008). "The Women of Brassempouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation" (PDF). Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. 13 (4): 250–303. doi:10.1007/s10816-006-9023-z. S2CID 161276973. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2022-10-22. Retrieved 2016-05-19.
  8. ^ Tedesco, Laura Anne. "Mal'ta (ca. 20,000 B.C.)" Archived 2023-12-23 at the Wayback Machine. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  9. ^ Cressey, Daniel (13 May 2009). "Ancient Venus rewrites history books". Nature. News. doi:10.1038/news.2009.473.
  10. ^ a b Beck, 202-203
  11. ^ Dixson, Alan F.; Dixson, Barnaby J. (2012-01-03). "Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?". Journal of Anthropology. 2011: 1–11. doi:10.1155/2011/569120.
  12. ^ a b c White, Randall (2006-11-30). "The Women of Brassempouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation". Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. 13 (4): 250–303. doi:10.1007/s10816-006-9023-z. ISSN 1072-5369. S2CID 161276973.
  13. ^ Soffer, O.; Adovasio, J. M.; Hyland, D. C. (2000-08-01). "The "Venus" Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic". Current Anthropology. 41 (4): 511–537. doi:10.1086/317381. ISSN 0011-3204. S2CID 162026727.
  14. ^ Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker (27 May 2012). Nude Woman (Venus of Willendorf), c. 28,000-25,000 B.C.E. (youtube video). Smarthistory, Art History at Khan Academy. Event occurs at 0:21. Archived from the original on 2021-11-17. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  15. ^ Soffer, O.; Adovasio, J. M.; Hyland, D. C. (Summer 2000). "The "Venus" Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic". Current Anthropology. 41 (4): 511–537. doi:10.1086/317381. ISSN 0011-3204. S2CID 162026727.
  16. ^ The body used is the local loess, with only traces of clay; there is no trace of surface burnishing or applied pigment. Vandiver, P. B.; Soffer, O.; Klima, B.; Svoboda, J. (1989). "The Origins of Ceramic Technology at Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia". Science. 246 (4933): 1002–1008. Bibcode:1989Sci...246.1002V. doi:10.1126/science.246.4933.1002. PMID 17806391. S2CID 138977052.
  17. ^ Sandars, 29; Fagan, 740-741; Cook; Beck, 203-213, who analyses attempts to classify the figures.
  18. ^ Sandars, 28
  19. ^ Fagan, 740-741; Beck, 203
  20. ^ McDermott, Leroy (1996). "Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines". Current Anthropology. 37 (2): 227–275. doi:10.1086/204491. JSTOR 2744349. S2CID 144914396.
  21. ^ Softpedia, Stefan Anitei (4 April 2007). "What is Steatopygia?". Archived from the original on 27 March 2019. Retrieved 4 September 2016.
  22. ^ a b c Johnson, Richard J (1 December 2020). "Upper Paleolithic Figurines Showing Women with Obesity may Represent Survival Symbols of Climatic Change". Obesity a Research Journal. 29 (1): 11–15. doi:10.1002/oby.23028. PMC 7902358. PMID 33258218.
  23. ^ Benigni, Helen, ed. 2013. The Mythology of Venus: Ancient Calendars and Archaeoastronomy. Lanham, Maryland : University Press of America.
  24. ^ "Site officiel du musée du Louvre". Archived from the original on 2022-10-02. Retrieved 2019-04-24.
  25. ^ "Figure féminine - Les Musées Barbier-Mueller". Archived from the original on 2019-04-21. Retrieved 2019-04-24.
  26. ^ Walter Burkert, Homo Necans (1972) 1983:78, with extensive bibliography, including P.J. Ucko, who contested the identification with mother goddesses and argues for a plurality of meanings, in Anthropomorphic Figurines of Predynastic Egypt and Neolithic Crete with Comparative Material from the Prehistoric Near East and Mainland Greece (1968).
  27. ^ Tidemann, Grethe. "Venus fra Svinesund". Uniforum. University of Oslo. Retrieved 11 December 2014.


Further reading