A Magdalenian Art Form in Bone, Ivory--and FlintVenus figurines--those ancient little statuettes of fat ladies--are among the best known artifact on the planet--except they really aren't. In general, the notion of Venus figurines conjures up small carved statues of voluptuous female figures with large body parts and no head or face to speak of. But to archaeologists, Venus figurines are much more varied, including portable art plaques and two- and three-dimensional carvings of men, children and animals as well as women in all stages of life. Together, they have been found at sites left behind by hunter-gatherer societies of the European and Asian late Pleistocene (or Upper Paleolithic) between about 31,000 and 9,000 years ago, during the last gasp of the last Ice Age. Their remarkable variety--and yet persistence--within this 20,000 year period continues to amaze researchers.
Lalinde/Gönnersdorf FigurinesOne subset of Venus figurines are the so-called Lalinde/Gönnersdorf figurines. These small portable statuettes of bone or ivory have been recovered from numerous archaeological sites in central and western Europe dating to the Late Magdalenian portion of the Upper Paleolithic period, approximately 16,000 to 14,000 years ago. Lalinde/Gönnersdorf figurines and engravings are strictly stylized, overtly female forms with over-sized buttocks, long trunks, small or missing breasts, and no heads. These images have been found at sites such as Gönnersdorf in Germany, in Abri Murat and Gare de Couze in France, Pekárna in the Czech Republic, and Wilczyce in Poland. At Wilczyce, over 100 small schist plaque engravings in the Lalinde/Gönnersdorf style have been found.
Venus Figurines at WilczyceRecent excavations at Wilczyce, reported in the 2007 March issue of the journal Antiquity, have also recovered a collection of worked flint objects that researchers believe are also Lalinde/Gönnersdorf figurines. These chipped stone objects bear a resemblance to a long-identified Upper Paleolithic flint tool called a 'strangled blade', but clearly the unused artifacts bear a striking resemblance to the style of the bone and ivory statuettes. Typically, Venus figurines are carved from ivory, serpentine, schist, limestone, hematite, lignite, calcite, fired clay, steatite, bone, and antler. Worked flint representations of human beings are known from later Neolithic contexts (ca 6000 years ago), such as Hierankonpolis in predynastic Egypt and sites from the Kargopol culture of Russia. But these objects at Wilczyce are the oldest identified anthropomorphic objects made from flaked flint, fully 10,000 years older than those at Hierakonpolis.
Art, Not ToolsThe research team, led by Romuald Schild of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology at the Polish Academy of Sciences, believes that the worked flints are art, not tools, because microscopic investigation of several samples revealed no use wear, no evidence that the objects had been used to scrape or work anything else. The artifacts were cut out of flint flakes and blades by the means of dorsal, steep retouch, and each has the characteristic voluptuous buttocks and long trunk identifying it as a Lalinde/Gönnersdorf figurine.
Is it possible that worked flints exist on other sites of the same age, but simply have not been identified as Venus figurines because of their unusual raw material? One Upper Paleolithic worked flint object that resembles a horse has been recently found at the Late Magdalenian site of Etioles, France.
Variations of VenusVenus figurines are a fascinating art form, not because they are representations of necessarily fat goddesses, but because they appear again and again, over a period of 20,000 years and in a remarkable range of variation.
Note: Lead author Romuald Schild sent along some high resolution photos of the chipped stone objects.
Dobres, Marcia Ann. 1996. Venus figurines. Pp 740-741 in Oxford Companion to Archaeology, Brian Fagan, ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Fiedorczuk, Jan, Bodil Bratlund, Else Kolstrup, and Romuald Schild. 2007. Late Magdalenian feminine flint plaquettes from Poland. Antiquity 81:97-105.
Lesure, Richard G. 2002. The Goddess diffracted: Thinking about the figurines of early villages. Current Anthropology 43(4):587-610.