23,000-year-old statuette found in France adds to mysterious collection of 'Venus figurines'
Archaeologists in France made a rare and important discovery when they unearthed a statuette of a woman dating back some 23,000 years during excavations in Amiens. The precious relic, which matches the characteristics of the so-called ‘Venus figurines’, is a magnificent example of Palaeolithic art, and is one of only 15 other similar figures found in France.
According to a release by AFP, the discovery was made during excavations at a Palaeolithic site in Amiens, where archaeologists were expecting to find flint or bone tools, but instead they found a pile of around twenty limestone fragments that did not appear natural. After managing to piece them together, they were surprised to find that the fragments formed the shape of a female figure.
“The discovery of this masterpiece is exceptional and internationally significant,” said Nicole Phoyu-Yedid, the head of cultural affairs in the area, on showing the find to the media.
The statuette is about 12 centimeters (4.7 inches) high, and is of a woman with big breasts and buttocks. The head and arms are less detailed, all typical features of the Venus figurines, of which around 200 have been found throughout Europe and Russia, and 15 of those in France. This latest discovery is the first time that a Venus figurine has been found in France in half a century. Radiocarbon dating returned an estimate of 23,000 years.
‘Venus figurines’ is the term given to a collection of prehistoric statuettes of women made during the Palaeolithic Period, all of whom are portrayed with similar physical attributes, including curvaceous bodies with large breasts, bottoms, abdomen, hips, and thighs, and usually tapered at the top and bottom. The heads are often of relatively small size and devoid of detail, and most are missing hands and feet. Some appear to represent pregnant women, while others show no such signs. There have been many different interpretations of the figurines, but none based on any kind of solid evidence. Like many prehistoric artifacts, the cultural meaning may never be known.
Venus figurines were carved from all manner of different materials, ranging from soft stone (such as steatite, calcite, or limestone) to bone, ivory, or clay. The oldest statuette was uncovered in 2008 in Germany. The "Venus of Hohle Fels”, as the figure has since been called, was carved from a mammoth’s tusk and dates to at least 35,000 years old.
The Venus of Hohle Fels, Urgeschichtliches Museum (Wikimedia Commons)
The term ‘Venus figurines’ is controversial in itself. Inspired by Venus, the ancient Greek goddess of love, it assumes that the figures represent a goddess. Of course, this is one possible explanation, but it is just one of many interpretations that have been proposed. A considerable diversity of opinion exists in the archaeological and paleoanthropological literature regarding the possible functions and significance of these objects. Some of the different theories put forward include: fertility symbols, self-portraits, Stone Age dolls, realistic depictions of actual women, ideal representations of female beauty, religious icons, representations of a mother goddess, or even the equivalent of pornographic imagery.
Unfortunately, the true meaning and purpose of these statuettes may never be known, leaving us to wonder why prehistoric people separated by significant time and distance created such similar figures, and what they really meant.
Featured image: Some of the Palaeolithic ‘Venus figurines’ that have been found throughout Europe (public domain).