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Details of the limestone block on which the image of the Lady of Arlanpe is engraved. Figure 5 of the study published in the journal Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

The Lady of Arlanpe: First Paleolithic Venus of the Iberian Peninsula?

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Excavations carried out between 2006 and 2011 in the Arlanpe cave located in the Biscay province of Spain have provided many details about the hominids who inhabited the area 17,000 years ago. Now, in addition to previous discoveries, a comprehensive analysis of a large block of stone recovered from the cave has led to the finding of what may the first anthropomorphic Paleolithic Venus of the Iberian Peninsula.

Joseba Rios Garaizar  found the new discovery and is a member of the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain.  He is an archaeologist and the leading author of  a study  on Paleolithic art depicting engraved female figures associated with Magdalenian occupations 17,500 years ago and located in the Arlanpe cave in Lemoa, Biscay: an interesting article published in the  Oxford Journal of Archaeology .

History of the Arlanpe Cave

As discussed in the monograph  Archaeological Research in Arlanpe Cave (Lemoa, Bizkaia) , Arlanpe cave was used as a shelter during the bombings at the time of the  Spanish Civil War . More recently, it has served as a location to keep goats and an occasional place for young people to spend their free time.

The cave gets its name from the cliff in which is located. Arlanpe is also the name of the nearby village. This name come from ‘ Ar-’ which in Euskara (the Basque language) means  stone, and ‘ -pe,’ meaning  low. -Lan- seems to be related to  Harlan, which means worked stone . The shape of the cliff may be the inspiration for this name. There is also the possibility that there was once a limestone quarry in the area.

Cliff of Arlanpe. Where the Arlanpe cave is located.

Cliff of Arlanpe. Where the Arlanpe cave is located.  (Joseba Rios Garaizar /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The excavations carried out in Arlanpe between 2006 and 2011 show that during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic the cave was used as a shelter, workplace, and location for hunting. Stone from the area was worked for utensils and sketches of women were engraved into the cave’s walls.

In more recent times, the cave was used as a burial site in the Bronze Age and as a place of worship in  Late Roman period .

Excavations at Arlanpe

The excavation and research project at Arlanpe cave (2006-2011) was designed to deepen the understanding of the way of life of the Middle Pleistocene hominids of the area. But the work has also enabled the study of other periods, such as the end of the  Solutrean, the  Middle Magdalenian , and the late Roman period as well.

Excavations in the Arlanpe cave.

Excavations in the Arlanpe cave.  (Joseba Rios-Garaizar /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Thirty experts from different research centers took part in the investigations. Together, they studied various aspects of the site and analyzed: the land and geo-archeology of the site, stone and bone artifacts, human remains, macrofauna, microfauna, and in particular, a unique stone block with carved female figures. It is this block of limestone that is back in the news years after the completion of the excavations in the cave.

Characteristics of the Lady of Arlanpe

As published by the Agency Sinc , during the excavations in 2011 a large block of limestone weighing about 70 kgs (154 lbs) was discovered. The block depicts female figures on two of its faces - one of which archaeologists have named the Lady of Arlanpe . This figure includes a torso, legs, arms and a head, while the other two engravings are barely visible.

This large block of limestone, weighing about 70kgs (154lbs) has female figures carved into two of its faces, one of which being the Lady of Arlanpe.

This large block of limestone, weighing about 70kgs (154lbs) has female figures carved into two of its faces, one of which being the Lady of Arlanpe. (Photo: CENIEH)

So far nothing else resembling this image has been found on the Iberian Peninsula. Therefore, the Lady of Arlanpe is a unique example with regard to female sketches from the Magdalenian period in central Europe and France in the Lalinde-Gönnersdorf  style (a typical style used at the end of the last glaciation.)

However, the Lady of Arlanpe is at least a millennium older than the images found at the famous  Gönnersdorf site  in Germany . This may reinforce the idea that this kind of symbolism had its origins in the Franco-Cantabrian region and then extended to the rest of the Old Continent as people moved into northern and central Europe.

Researchers from  Arkeologi Museoa Bilbao , the  University of Toulouse , and Ikerbasque have all participated in the CENIEH research.

Engraving of two stylized Venus sketches facing each other, as if dancing. From the Gönnersdorf archaeological site in Neuwied, Germany.

Engraving of two stylized Venus sketches facing each other, as if dancing. From the Gönnersdorf archaeological site in Neuwied, Germany. The Venus of Arlanpe may be more than a millennium older than the two that appear in this image. ( Public Domain )

Featured image: Details of the limestone block on which the image of the Lady of Arlanpe is engraved. Figure 5 of the study published in the journal Oxford Journal of Archaeology. ( Oxford Journal of Archaeology )

By: Mariló TA

This article was first published in Spanish at https://www.ancient-origins.es/ and has been translated with permission.

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