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Historic facts about the Venus of Willendorf and Venus of Dolní Věstonice


"It was a beautiful August morning in 1908, when the “Venus of Willendorf” again awoke from thousands of years of sleep in sunny Wachau. It was discovered in my presence in the village of Szombathya, at a depth of approximately 25 cm beneath an undisturbed layer of ash near a large kiln (the 9th and highest cultural layer)…"
(J. Bayer in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt newspaper dated 4.2.1910, cited in: Antl-Weiser, S 11)

Venus of Willendorf – a work of art from the Old Stone Age

Venus_Willendorf_1 The Venus of Willendorf was the first complete sculpture of a woman from the Old Stone Age which could definitely be assigned to a specific finds layer, the Gravettian. (Antl-Weiser, 2008, S 27)

Brief description of the Gravettian

“The culture of the Old Stone Age, originally referred to as the “early Aurignacian”, in 1938 designated by Garrod as a separate cultural layer, approx. 28,000 to 23,000 years ago, micro-tools, tips with chipped ridges, spear-throwers, the statues of Venus, Homo sapiens.” (Antl-Weiser, 2008, Pg. 26)

The beginning of research at Willendorf

More than 20 years before the discovery of the sculpture, Willendorf was known as a Palaeolithic site, and as prehistory was not studied at that time, the investigation work was done by people from other fields of expertise, most of whom were very rich. In addition to animal bones (reindeer, wild horse, mammoth, and wolf), stone tools were also found in the loess.

The importance of Willendorf for research into the Palaeolithic

Venus_Willendorf_4Willendorf is not just known for this sculpture of Venus as a unique work of art. The chronological depth spanned by the find layers also make the Willendorf site very interesting in terms of modern research in Central and Eastern Europe. “In any case, the bottom layers in Willendorf take us back to the time when Homo sapiens first appeared in Central Europe. If we can specify the transition from the Neanderthals to modern people within Central Europe, it is here, by the Danube, the river running like an axis through a large part of Europe, which has always helped to spread new ideas and cultures.” (Antl-Weiser, 2008, Pg. 179 and following)

Description of the find

When a railway was being built alongside the Danube, on 7 August 1908 in the municipality of Willendorf in Wachau a complete limestone sculpture was discovered, now known as the “ Venus of Willendorf”. The sculpture is of a naked, obese woman with no feet. The knees are slightly tilted outwards, the shoulders are narrow, and the thin arms and hands, decorated with etched circles, rest on the heavy breasts. The head is tilted slightly forwards and the hair lies in parallel locks; the figure has no face. There are marked folds of fat under the arms and on the buttocks. The sculpture was originally thickly daubed with red paint. It is 11 cm high and can be dated to the Gravettian (approx. 25.000 B.C.).

Venus of Dolní Véstonice

venus_dolni_vestonice_2The Venus of Dolní Věstonice is a ceramic sculpture of a woman. It is estimated to be 25,000 to 29,000 years old, and thus falls into the Gravettian.

The sculpture was found during extensive archaeological excavations headed by Karel Absolon in 1924 - 1938 in Dolní Věstonice in Moravia, in what is now the district of Břeclav. The excavations revealed a mammoth hunters’ camp from the Stone Age.

It is one of the oldest pottery products we know of, and is made of a mixture of animal bonemeal and clay. It was found together with numerous drawings of animals – lions, mammoths, horses, rhinoceroses – and the remains of two kilns.

The sculpture is 11.1 cm high and 4.3 cm wide. It is shaped like other statuettes from the same period, i.e. large breasts and buttocks, no individual facial features, and the eyes are shown as two slanting slits. When it was found it had been broken into two pieces.

It is kept in the Moravian Museum in Brno, but is not on display. 

Source: see Brockhaus

Description of the find

venus_dolni_vestonice_1The world-famous Venus of Dolní Věstonice was made approx. 26 000 years ago, when during the warmer period of the last ice age Moravia was settled by groups of hunters and gatherers, who formed the archaeological culture known as the Gravettian, and also the Pavlovian in Moravia. This period is commonly known as the age of the mammoth hunters. Its age makes this Venus the oldest pottery sculpture in the world. However, it is not the only one from this period: sculptures of women have also been found in Pavlov, Ostrava-Petřkovice, and in Willendorf, although these sculptures date from a somewhat later time.

The sculpture was actually found in Dolní Věstonice on 13 June 1925, when Professor Karel Absolon and his team were into their second year of excavations there. The broken sculpture was found together with stone tools and animal bones in a layer of ash in a large fireplace some 10 metres in diameter.

The sculpture is 11.5 cm high and at its widest point, around the pelvis, it measures 4.3 cm. Some parts of the body have been carved very realistically, while others are merely implied. When carving the figure the artist paid special attention to those parts of the body associated with sexuality, or fertility, i.e. the breasts, vulva, and abdomen. Folds of fat are emphasised on the back of the figure. In contrast to this, less care was taken over the face, and the eyes are just two small slits. The throat was not modelled at all, while the hands and feet are only hinted at.
The most famous interpretations of the Venus of Dolní Věstonice as a symbol of fertility or the sexual ideal of the time are not the only interpretations. Others say that the Venus of Dolní Věstonice is a cryptogram representing the synthesis of the symbol of womanhood on the lower parts of the body (the legs in the shape of a triangle) and the symbol of manhood on the upper part of the body (the head thrust forward and the sagging breasts beneath it). It could also depict a heavenly body or might have been an amusing piece at the time. The Venus could also be related to magic.

Researchers originally thought that the sculpture was made from a mixture of clay, ash, and bone; however, not long ago the Venus was examined using computer tomography (CT) and found to be made of soft clay containing a mixture of small white grains, probably caused by the precipitation of lime, although they could be small fragments of bone.

The painter and illustrator Zdeněk Burian painted a famous picture showing an old man with dishevelled hair making the sculpture. This idea is supported by the discovery of a fingerprint on the back of the figure. Analysis showed that, according to the size of the print, it came from a child aged between seven and fifteen, or an adolescent or young woman. Obviously the fingerprint was not necessarily made by the same person who created the figure.
Since its discovery the Venus has been stored in the collection of the Moravian Museum in Brno. Near the end of the Second World War part of the collections were moved to Mikulov Chateau. The chateau was burnt out shortly before the end of the war and these collections were destroyed. The Venus of Dolní Věstonice was only saved by the lucky coincidence that it needed to be photographed and so at the time had been taken back to Brno.
Nowadays the real Venus is only displayed on very special occasions. In normal exhibitions a replica is shown.

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