31 December 2008

Beyond the Horizon

A New Year's modern surprise at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden (Updated)

... a triumphant display of works inspired by the Museum's own collection

What a great start to the New Year!

The Dutch artist Bierenbroodspot opened her new exhibition of paintings and sculpture, drawings and giant prints 4 x 5 metres (12' x 15') -- hanging like sunlit banners on the museum walls -- which I read as prose poems or like pages from a time-travel diary.

In this unique exhibition, we see how a modern artist re-interprets the past by viewing her work almost side-by-side with the original pieces that inspired her.
An offering which the pharaoh gives Sekhmet, the Great, Lady of Heaven that she may grant power in heaven, strength on earth and a good name for her beloved, the Overseer of Craftsmen and Chief of Goldsmiths, Gerti Bierenbroodspot.
For countless generations, artists have freely incorporated elements from distant cultures to create new visual forms. Archaeologists and art historians are always studying (and being stymied by) such 'influences' and artistic interdependence. Bierenbroodspot takes this ‘re-mix’ one step further: she uses a modern Museum’s archaeological treasures as the starting point for her art, creating from the ancient objects a highly personal vision of a modernity grand in theme as well as in manner. To create this ground-breaking show, Bierenbroodspot received the keys of the Museum, free to wander at will -- enter any vault, open any display, sit in the hidden hall of the mummies, rummage through the racks in the basements -- sketching whichever items struck her artist’s eye.

Follow her trajectory through the Museum. Click on the video (Warning: downloading is slow, so I suggest that you read on until it starts. Impatient readers may click via her website instead. The music is from cellist Ernst Reijseger's Requiem for a Dying Planet).

video


In the Ideal Museum


Bierenbroodspot went on a barefooted journey of discovery through the Museum (without footwear, she feels freer, her mind more open to improvisation). The barefoot artist -- smudged with paint, and laden with papyrus, rice paper, quills, brushes, inks and powders -- followed magic signs and golden lines through the galleries to reach a mythical abode, Beyond the Horizon.
The Muses do not wait; they decide over the Holy Fire, the Divine Inspiration, when and where they want to share it with the artist...
But it is not history that interests her: as she paints them, objects become re-newed, the transmutation of art giving them again the power of dreams.

When Bierenbroodspot saw the bronze horse bits from Luristan or inscribed clay tablets from Sumer, she stopped and had them out of their cases and in her hands. Re-used in her art, these things that are silent and past get a new vision, as in a magic theatre or divine rite. A polished bronze Corinthian-Greek hoplite helmet or the ornate gilded silver face-mask of a Roman knight become eerily like, in feel, twelve bronze helmets from the armoury of Atlantis that Bierenbroodspot cast for her record-breaking show, Atlantis Rising:

round and domed helmets encrusted with fiery green or turquoise patina, with pins, tubes and metal strips attached to vanished crests, worn by warriors in a dream-like world. These are the faces of an invisible army, with gabled brows and eye-holes sharply drawn out, and sun disks glittering with gold enamel. Helmets that have power, and that shock.

The phalanx of helmets stands in the hall of the Isis (Taffeh) temple. Where once stood imperial statues, there are two massive bronze heads, Bierenbroodspot’s Fallen Gods, guardians of a lost civilization; and, nearby, the Last King of Atlantis, lordly and full of pride, the fragment of a colossal statue cast in the here-and-now.

Finally, Bierenbroodspot descended into the mummy hall, a place closed to the public. Museums have an ethical dispute with mummies: are they fit objects for display or, as human remains, are they entitled to eternal rest? Bierenbroodspot, as an artist, treats them with sacred dignity.
Over this image that is sketched on a clean, unused sheet of papyrus with powder of emerald green glaze mixed with myrrh and water. Say, "I am an initiate, void of sins. There is nothing I do not know about Truth."
She thinks of the mural scene of the deathbed of Queen Nefertari, carved like a lion’s body, with the goddesses Isis and Nephtys to guard her mummy, as two hovering hawks. Hieroglyphs with birds and animals flutter around her protective tent, magic spells to help the dead as they make the dangerous journey Beyond the Horizon.

She painted the head of a mummy, blackened by age, now spending its afterlife as an unexpected artist’s model. She (a female head, according to Bierenbroodspot) grimaces at the painter, her upper lip drawn back to bare her teeth. "It’s a smile," says Bierenbroodspot. "I am bringing her back to life. That’s why the Pharaohs let me paint them."

Beyond the Horizon is antiquity re-emerging, and a limitless unique moment in space. 



** Visit Bierenbroodspot's Beyond the Horizon at the National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden) until 22 February 2009. A catalogue is available. Click for a free e-card. If you can't get to Leiden in time, visit her website and click on 'Beyond the Horizon' in the menu.

Update: 14 January 2009

Due to the unprecedented number of visitors, the Museum announced yesterday that Beyond the Horizon, originally slated to run until 22 February, has been extended through 3 May 2009. So, anyone planning a trip to the tulip fields in the spring, can scoot over to nearby Leiden as well. Don't miss it!

21 December 2008

An Uppity Stone-Age Venus (III)

Click for Part I and Part II

Symbols of Fertility, procreation and life

Or not?

Swelling bellies, ample curves, and the milk-filled breasts of a pregnant woman -- what could be more natural, and evocative?

Reproducer Venus, fat and fertile.

A Palaeolithic man needed a woman who would bear him lots of children. Not a pretty face but a “faceless fertile being" with a strongly emphasized vulva to produce a continuing supply of young humans. And, if she got too fat in the process, well, there's just more of her to impregnate. So men carved desirable images of obese, passive, child-bearing nurturers -- another weapon in the armoury of Palaeolithic magic. Perhaps these ladies were divine in some sense, but, if so, that was restricted to a place in cults of fertility acted out by men and for men. This was the early 20th century prehistorians' view -- and there may well be a certain amount of truth in it.

But not enough to carry the weight of the theory. For it should have been obvious (even at the time) that this could not have been the whole story. Some Venuses didn't fit the model.


Someone may have unkindly pointed out, too, that there are no carved children. If Palaeolithic Tarzans were obsessed with the need for abundant offspring, they (literally) didn't show it.

So fertility was combined with another idea.

From Palaeolithic Reproducer to Mother Goddess

Johann Bachofen had already proposed the existence of the Neolithic cult of the female deity and prehistoric matriarchy in Mutterrecht und Urreligion (Mother Right and the Origins of Religion) in 1861. He believed that women and Mother-centred religion had dominated in the epochs before recorded history.

In this once-upon-a-time-world, women were
the repository of all culture, of all benevolence, of all devotion, of all concern for the living and grief for the dead.
In short, the first gods were female and women ruled the earth. In this era, women mated promiscuously and "every woman's womb was the mortal image of the Earth Mother". Everyone was sister, brother, uncle, or aunt to everybody else, a world of unimaginable equality or, as Bachofen described it, "the undifferentiated unity of the mass." It sounds as if he pictured Mutterrecht society as a kind of human beehive. A beehive throbbing with inchoate forms of She-worship:
Whirling round and round in dance until "the beasts and all the mountain seemed wild with divinity."
Of course, such happy, chaotic times couldn't last. Too bodily-busy, sticky (if not steamy), and oblivious to the individual, the Mother was destined to be replaced by paternal rule. The stars transited from the warm lucent bubble of livingness to the celestial, Olympian right of the father.* Out went the She-god, in came the He-god -- and with him, hierarchical male-dominated religions, and male control of females. This "world historical defeat of the female sex", as Friedrich Engels phrased it, was not only inevitable ... but for women's own good: obscene disorder was suppressed and women came under the protection of individual men.

Whoopee.

The Neolithic Goddess in the Rear-view Mirror

Although the evidence for an ancient Mother Goddess religion is much stronger in Neolithic archaeology (popularly connected with the writings of the Marija Gimbutas), theories that include the Palaeolithic figurines as ritualistic representations of an even older Mother Goddess are quite common.

Gertrude Rachel Levy's study of Stone Age religion, The Gate of Horn (1948) was strong on the continuity of female religious traditions from Upper Palaeolithic people who "bequeathed to all humanity a foundation of ideas upon which the mind could raise its structures": the cave as the female womb; the mother as a pregnant earth; the magical fertile female as the mother of all animals. Levy assumed that the Venus figurines were
the first step in the establishment of a relationship between the human group and the One [the goddess].
Well, maybe. She had an interesting idea, though, about why the early Venuses usually lacked extremities: "the general unimportance among the statues of face, hands, and feet may have originated in fears of magic dangers” -- as seen, for example, in modern voodoo dolls. Having made a potential connection between an anthropomorphic figure of a specific person and the resulting power over that individual, Levy left the idea hanging and took refuge in vague references to their role in a "cult of human fertility".

What's a Fertility Cult Anyway?

Obviously, many Venuses have pronounced sexual characteristics but all that really tells us is that there was an undoubted (and unsurprising) interest in sexuality.

It says nothing about cult.

The word 'cult' implies beliefs and rituals, or at least performances. So any ' fertility cult' requires some kind of ritualistic performance that aimed to promote animal, vegetable or human procreation. Needless to say, we rarely find archaeological evidence demonstrating such performances in any prehistoric period, let alone in the Upper Palaeolithic.

What about 'fertility' by itself, then?

It's an inconvenient fact that those hunter-gatherer societies which survived into the early 20th centuries did not seem especially concerned with fertility. Not a perfect analogy (to be sure) but the best we have. The importance of fertility only becomes apparent during the transition into communities based on agricultural and pastoral production. Still, archaeologists can really only hope to unveil the meaning of the Venuses by analogy of some sort -- which means borrowing ideas from various other disciplines (psychology, phenomenology of religions, anthropology, or -- to be very up-to-date -- neuroscience) .

Zenobia will do her re-reading of the past through the lens of feminism.

You Tarzan, Me Jane

Feminist scholars of the 1960's began to question the research methods and male chauvinism apparent in earlier studies of the female figurines. Citing Bachofen’s Mutterrecht theory (despite its dire biases), they revived his primeval matriarchies and the belief that ‘mother-right’ was important in early religion:

[The] female body was a symbol of cosmological significance ....

If the female body was one of the most widespread and elaborate images of the Old Stone Age, and a symbol for the various forces of nature and the various aspects of culture, would it really be so far from the mark to believe that the figurines actually embody aspects of the Paleolithic worship of a goddess?

In their interpretations, feminist writers imagined the first religion as the deification of the female. The SHE-body is now a multivalent, multi-purpose symbol which can be utilized both for the understanding of and worship of a goddess-figure.

This is the viewpoint of the goddess-books published from the 1970's to the early 1990's, many of which went whizzing off into quasi-mystical realms
the mystery of the female body is the mystery of birth, which is also the mystery of the unmanifest becoming the manifest in the whole of nature
Archaeology definitely takes a back seat. And prehistoric women are transformed into “some kind of super-beings revered by submissive males for their femaleness and their ability to produce children”.

And all because the stupid men didn't know about the birds and the bees:

It is plausible, though not certain, that the first humans were unaware of the exact role of the male in procreation, not having established a causal relationship between coitus and parturition. Thus, their attitude toward the female, apparently weaker than the male, but mysteriously able to produce life, was ambiguous: a profound respect, if not veneration, and, at the same time, a kind of terror in the face of incomprehensible, even magic or divine, powers. The statuettes called ‘Venus callipyges,’ ["of the beautiful bum"] of the well-known Lespugue type, are a decisive argument in favor of this thesis, because, in these representations, a divine maternal power is undeniable [and it is] probable that primitive humanity regarded divinity, whatever that was, as feminine in nature.

The only problem with this overheated argument is that the largest group of Venuses represent non-pregnant adult females. Instead of simply being obese or pregnant, many figurines appear to be young, pre-pubescent girls who have very small or no breasts and diminutive fatty deposits -- which surely means that the Venus figurines must represent different aspects of womanhood, not just motherhood.

So, serious studies nowadays reject fertility, ritual, feminine power or prestige, and cast about for other, lesser meanings to explain the variety of Venus figurines. They could be good-luck amulets, for example, or initiation figures, obstetrician teaching tools, puppets, priestesses, witches, or banshees to scare away strangers. A Venus-in-hand might help a woman in childbirth, or calm a fretful man like a string of primordial worry-beads. Finally, Venuses might mean nothing at all, being examples only of Palaeolithic experimentation with the technique of carving.

Girls Will Be Girls

The 1966 "Man the Hunter" conference changed the way anthropologists thought about hunter-gatherer societies. New research showed that such societies were sexually egalitarian, and thus the idea that men and women were once equal finally took root. Studies began to demonstrate women's contributions to subsistence. The he-manly mammoth hunter, beloved of 19th century prehistorians, turned out to be a dud as the main food provider -- though there is an undoubted cultural value in sharing meat and the prestige it bestows upon men with strong hunting skills. Analysis showed that women produced an average of 2/3rds of the calories for the group, a result of their highly-skilled gathering forays. During those forays, incidentally, women also often caught small game, thus producing protein-munchies as well as veg and nuts.

Possibly, it was the women's contributions -- and not the big-game of male hunters -- that assured the survival of the species.

While !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert, Australian desert Aborigines and polar Eskimos, of course, are not carbon copies of our Palaeolithic ancestors, they do share important features in social behaviour and values. Since they have never been in contact with each other, it's very likely that the shared features reflect a common social and environmental situation ... and thus it's reasonable to assume that European Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers had similar social organisation, values, and ways of thinking.

I suggest that one should make use of what we know about contemporary hunter-gatherers in order to imagine the motivations of prehistoric artists:
A centrality of women, or a special relevance of them or even a state of gender equality, has very probably been an important adaptive factor in the emergence of Homo sapiens out of all the different evolutionary experiments attempted by non-human Hominids. In simple terms, human evolution may well have acted on the gender that most invested in reproduction, nurturing and caring, a concept often [proposed] by female evolution scientists, but stubbornly ignored by their male colleagues and museum directors, who continue to display the evolution of Man the Hunter, with small women squatting in the background.**
The Venus figurines may well reflect women's centrality (not political power) in the human adventure. The figurines range from realistic to symbolic representations of women but, regardless of the degree of realism, all or some female attributes are emphasised: breasts, vulva, and the natural female pattern of fat distribution on legs, hips and buttocks. These are clearly the attributes the carvers wished to emphasize.

If we accept that prehistoric artists represented forms that were important for them, carving a Venus was a way of expressing emotions and sharing them with others, just as contemporary artists, singers and dancers do. This is not art for art’s sake or aesthetics, it is communication.**

Will we ever know what they were saying?

No, I don't think so.

As my dissertation supervisor used to say, "That, Judith, is not an archaeological question."



* Citations in this section from Marianna Torgovnick, Primitive Passions: Men, Women, and the Quest for Ecstacy (1997) 37-39.

** Piero P. Giorgi, "A new interpretation of female symbols and figures produced in prehistoric Europe: the hypothesis of the centrality of women", in Valcamonica Symposium 2007.

Other Main Sources

On fertility cults, Emmanuel Anati, "The Question of Fertility Cults", in (A. Bonanno, ed.) Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean, 1985, 2-16. On Venuses, Alexander Marshack "The Female Image: a 'Time-factored' Symbol, in Proc. Prehistoric Society 57 (1991) 17-31; Patricia Rice, "Prehistoric Venuses: Symbols of Motherhood or Womanhood?" Jrl. Anthropological Research 37 (1981) 402-14; once again, I have made much use of K.D. Jennett's paper Female Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic (2008).

Illustrations

Above centre: 3 views of the ceramic Vestonicka Venus, credit Petr Novák, Wikipedia

Middle centre: 3 mammoth-ivory Venuses from Avdeevo, Collection of the Museum of Anthropology, University of Moscow. Photo L Iakovleva ("Les mammouths", Dossiers Archéologie - n° 291 - Mars 2004).

Above left: Ostrava-Petrkovice Venus (Czech Rep.), carved in haematite (sic). Photo: T. Powell, Prehistoric Art.

Above right: Savignano Venus (Italy), in steatite

Lower left: Mammoth-ivory 'The Armless' Venus from the caves of Balzi Rossi (Liguria, Italy)

Bottom left: Mammoth-ivory Venus of Lespugne.

Bottom right: Mammoth-ivory Venus from Yeliseevichi (Russia). Photo: Vladimir Gorodnjanski, 2006

Footnote left: for a sense of scale (cm.), two mammoth-ivory Venuses from the Grotto of the Venuses, Parabita (Sarento, Italy).

06 December 2008

An Uppity Stone-Age Venus (II) and an Hottentot Slave


Scroll down for Part I, or click on Uppity Venus I



Steatopygia is a genetic condition marked by an excess of fat on the buttocks, layers of fat that often extend down the front and sides of the thighs. In the modern world, it is common only among the females of certain African peoples, notably the Khoikhoi ('Hottentots'), San (Bushwomen), and Pygmies.

Internally, the buttocks of steatopygous women consist of masses of fat incorporated between criss-crossed sheets of connective tissue joined to one another in a regular manner.

How much rump is a big, fat rump?

The degree of steatopygia is recorded as the shortest distance between the deepest point in the hollow of the back and a plane, placed at right angles to the median sagittal,* just touching the most posterior point of the buttocks. Among the adult Kalahari Bushwomen, this averages 7.8 cm (3"), with a maximum of 11½ cm (4½") ; among Bushwomen of the Cape Province, a range of 7½ – 15 cm (3 – 6") has been measured.

Another way of looking at it is based on the sharpness of the angle between back and buttocks: steatopygia strictly speaking is diagnosed at an angle of about 90 degrees.

In that case, not even the famous Venus of Willendorf (above centre) qualifies as steatopygous. She -- and most other Venuses -- have an almost nymph-like angle of about 120 degrees between back and buttocks.

No matter. Enter scientists.

The Missing Link

Although Venus buttocks rarely stand at right angles, they are unarguably ample. As these figurines began to appear in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they first stunned, then titillated Europeans. That voluptuous body shape was quickly linked to the steatopygia found among some African women and interpreted as evidence of an African influence on the Cro-Magnon (whitish) European culture.

The French archaeologist Edouard Piette** (1827-1906), a Palaeolithic pioneer, attributed the unusual condition of steatopygia that afflicted these Palaeolithic hunters to the presence of a Negroid race of Europe.

Needless to say, 'Negroid' and 'primitive' were easily conflated.

In this two-race theory, the Negroids were responsible for whatever appeared grotesque and savage, while more pleasing objects (such as the Lady with the Hood, pictured in a footnote below) were credited to the Cro-Magnons -- thus demonstrating a “search of beauty” by dead white males.

Although Piette admitted being puzzled by “racial differences within the collection of Venuses and the resemblance of some of them to African populations”(my italics), he was nonetheless certain that they were Negroid in origin. And he was equally certain that the figurines were meant “to be read literally as realistic depictions of human anatomy” since, as he said, all Paleolithic people were “profound realists [who] represented themselves [as they were] in engraving and sculpture.”

It's a pity Piette died before the Venus de Monpazier (right) was found in a newly-ploughed French field [Oo là là, elle est vraiment très française celle-là]: she would surely have been the proof of the pudding. Not only has she a decidedly right-angled bum but also the enlarged vulva characteristic of some steatopygous women as well. That is, she exhibits extreme labial hypertrophy, in which uncommonly long labia minora protrude from the outer lips (labia majora) of the vagina -- looking, when she stands, for all the world like a small penis, or, when reclining, as a dangling curtain of skin.

Such an 'unnatural' development in women is but a hop, skip and jump from proof of unbridled primitive sexuality.

Sex-Toys Я Us

After the first flush of European imperialism had run its course, race was out and sex moved in. The figurines were now understood as erotic objects used by Paleolithic men.
Sex and hunger were the two motives which influenced the entire mental life of the mammoth hunters and their productive art.
Strong male desires explained the origin of art: the Venuses were manufactured as erotic paraphernalia, providing pleasure to Paleolithic man during his meals . They also provided direct tactile and visual satisfaction. Art, in short, began as primitive pornography (or, if I may put it so, artefacts used with one hand).

The Dictionary of Medical Science agreed. In an essay written in 1819, a medical doctor wrote of black woman developing a voluptuousness and a degree of lascivity unknown to whites. He particularly stressed the consonance between the hideous form of the female Hottentot's physiognomy and sexual lasciviousness.

I would have thought that the desire to eat was unexceptional yet that, too, was brought into play:

"Among us [whites] the forehead is pushed forward, the mouth is pulled back as if we were destined to think rather than eat; the Negro has a shortened forehead and a mouth that is pushed forward as if he were made to eat instead of to think."

Enter the Hottentot Venus

This fetid stew of ultra-Negro savagery, primitive Negroids and sexual titillation was further stirred by a Khoikhoi woman named Saartjie Baartman -- the Hottentot Venus (left) -- who sailed into London in 1810.
The first time Saartjie Baartman was dragged out to squat before the mob at 225 Piccadilly, the show's promoters billed her genitals as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey's throat. For several years, working-class Londoners crowded in to shout vulgarities at the protruding buttocks and large vulva of the unfortunate woman made famous across Europe as the "Hottentot Venus". The aristocracy were no less fascinated at what they saw as a sexual freak, but they had private showings.
The bizarre tale began in 1789, when Saartjie Baartman was born near the little village of Hankey on the Great Fish (Gamtoos) River in South Africa's Eastern Cape into the clan of Griqua people. The Griqua were called 'Hottentots' by the Dutch settlers, probably an onomatopoeic word imitating the clicking sounds of their language.

In her late teens, she migrated to Cape Town where she worked as a servant for a Boer farmer, Pieter Cezar. Colonial records show that in 1810 she was living in a small shack on his land when a British ship's doctor, William Dunlop, took an interest in her. He was fascinated by her large rump and genitalia -- exceptional even by Khoikhoi standards -- and was convinced he could capitalize on the prurient interest in primitive sexuality. Explorers of Africa had already spread stories about Hottentot women’s oversized buttocks and the mysterious 'Hottentot apron,' an enticing flap of skin covering the vaginal area.

Together with Pieter's brother Hendrik, Dunlop convinced the young woman to enter into a contract to sail with them to London, telling her that she would become rich by displaying her body. No doubt she saw the opportunity to live like the white colonialists in the Cape.

Baartman spent 4 years in London on display ostensibly for scientific purposes, but in truth as an extraordinary freak- show exhibit. In those days there was little distinction between zoological exhibitions and human freaks, whether women with hairy bodies and beards, or The Living Skeleton, or 'The Fattest Man on Earth' (weighing 700 lb., 317 kg), or a young lady measuring just 22½ inches tall (58 cm) whose stage name, the 'Sicilian Fairy', encapsulated both her size and frailty.

The supposedly excessive size of Baartman's buttocks and the 'Hottentot apron' fit the time perfectly. Her uncommon bum and genitals were an intellectually satisfying missing link between true (white) humans and the highest type of apes, the orang-utans.

Cezar advertised the show and billed Baartman as a “most correct specimen of her race.” The Hottentot Venus exhibition, which took place at 225 Egyptian Hall at the Piccadilly Circus, was instantly popular and inspired bawdy ballads and political cartoons (above left, two cartoon comments: "Oh! God Damn what roast beef!" and "Ah! how comical is nature."). A contemporary account describes how she was paraded on a "stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered."

Charles Matthews, comedian, who “was all his life a great sight-seer”, frequented the London neighbourhood in pursuit of the latest curiosities. Upon visiting Baartman:

He found her surrounded by many persons, some females! One pinched her; one
gentleman poked her with his cane; one lady employed her parasol to ascertain
that all was, as she called it, ‘nattral.’ This inhuman baiting the poor creature
bore with sullen indifference, except upon some provocation, when she seemed
inclined to resent brutality.... On these occasions it took all the authority of the
keeper to subdue her resentment.

The show also provoked outrage, as various witnesses described Baartman appearing nearly nude and being threatened with violence by her exhibitor. These complaints soon led to the intervention of the African Institution, an abolitionist organization that brought Hendrik Cezar to trial for practising slavery and public indecency. Baartman testified on her own behalf, but she did not corroborate stories of being held against her will and only complained about not having enough clothes to wear. The courts eventually dismissed the case but mandated that Cezar discontinue in the show’s indecency.

As a consequence, Cezar and Baartman moved to Paris in 1814, where she was abandoned (or sold) to a "showman of wild animals" at a travelling circus. The Hottentot Venus caused the same sensation in Paris as she had in London. When she was not being paraded for the hoi-polloi, Baartman was displayed at society functions.

It was at a ball for France's new establishment -- where she was dressed in nothing but a few feathers -- that Napoleon's surgeon general and founder of the disciplines of geology, paleontology, and comparative anatomy, Georges Cuvier, spotted her and claimed a scientific interest. Over the following year she was repeatedly studied by doctors and anthropologists, who invariably concluded that she was evidence of the superiority of the white race.

All this prodding and oogling took its toll on her, driving her into prostitution and alcoholism. She died in 1815, just five years after arriving in Europe. Descriptions of her death point to syphilis and tuberculosis as the cause. She was 25 years old.

Upon her death, Cuvier acquired her cadaver. Her body was first copied in a plaster-cast (right) and then dissected. In his 1817 scientific thesis, Histoire naturelle des mammifères, Cuvier unveiled the mystery of her 'apron' (which she had refused to display to him even when offered money) and compared her genitalia with those of apes, developing his theories on African women’s oversexed and subhuman status. Her bones were boiled and her brain and genitals bottled.

Her skeleton, pickled brain, and pickled sex organs were mounted for display and shown in the great Musée de l’Homme next to her naked plaster-cast -- the very first exhibits to be seen by a visitor in the foyer of the museum. She was only removed from public view in 1976.***


The Unexpected Palaeolithic Trilogy

Having allowed myself to be side-tracked by Saartjie Baartman's story, I don't have the heart to return to my little Palaeolithic female figurines for the moment. So we'll have to tackle the next great theory -- the figurines as objects used in fertility rites and rituals -- in a third post, when I also hope to bring the narrative up to our own time and, with any luck, to a conclusion.




* That is, the point at the top of the head dividing the body into left and right halves

** As it happens, the 'Treasures of Edouard Piette' are now being shown at the Musée des antiquités nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris. The exhibition includes the Venus of Brassempouy (left)- also known as the "Lady with the Hood" (discovered by Piette) - being shown in its original form to the public for the first time. From 29 Nov. 2008 - 2 March 2009.

*** Some Africans never forgot Baartman. Nelson Mandela made a request to France in 1994 for her remains to be handed back. Her cause gained momentum amid post-apartheid South Africa's new awareness of tribal identity. All over the country, aboriginal peoples were asserting their heritage rights, claiming not only political and cultural recognition, but also the restitution of ancestral lands. Baartman's tribe, now recognized by the United Nations as an indigenous First Nation, won a victory for tribal recognition by securing the return of the 'Hottentot Venus' : in March 2002, the French Senate finally agreed to return Baartman’s remains—including her preserved organs—to her homeland. She was buried near her birthplace on the River Gamtoos on 9 August 2002, South African Women’s Day.

Some recommended resources for Saartjie Baartman: Reliable information and a nuanced historical discussion, with full references, in S. Qureshi, "Displaying Sara Baartman, the 'Hottentot Venus'"; a not-to-be-missed blog post (although somewhat historically shaky) at the Diary of an Anxious Black Woman; an article in the Guardian newspaper shortly before Baartman's repatriation; and some context on "Exhibiting 'Others' in the West".

Two books, neither entirely satisfactory, has since appeared.

Rachel Holmes, African Queen: The real life of the Hottentot Venus (Random House, 2007), reviewed by Caroline Elkins in the New York Times, "A Life Exposed":

It is difficult not to be propelled through “African Queen.” The story of Saartjie Baartman — the Hottentot Venus’s real name — is inherently fascinating, and littered with a diverse cast of highly unlikable characters....

Clifton Crais & Pamela Scully, Sarah Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A ghost story and a biography (Princeton University, 2009) reviewed by Kathryn Hughes in the TLS 7 August 2009:

...lust for the racial "other", a sentimental desire to see on of Rousseau's noble savages in person, and a more generalized freak show hysteria all lay behind the storm of interest which the "Hottentot's" presence produced at every level of British culture.


Illustrations:

Centre top: Venus of Willendorf (Austria), discovered 1908.

Above left: one of the Kostienki Venuses (Russia), with woven breast ornament [back view of image in previous post].

Above right: one of the Gargarino Venuses (Ukraine), discovered in a house pit, 1926-1929.

Below right: Venus of Monpazier (France), discovered 1970.

Below left: Kostienki I Venus, discovered in 1936. Her head is covered with rows of shallow teeth cuts, depicting hair or a closely fitting head-dress. Engraved and relief lines on the chest and on the back. Mammoth's tusk.

Photographs of Saartjie Baartman and cartoons are available at various sites on the Internet.


05 December 2008

An Uppity Stone-Age Venus (Updated)


This is the lovely new lady made of mammoth ivory from Zaraysk, Russia. She's 16.6 cm (6.7") tall. Although popularly known as 'Venuses' -- and one can see why -- the four views of our naked lady shows that she's not particularly voluptuous as Venuses go (compare the Gagarino Venus, below right), quite flat-chested in fact, though her hips, belly, and bum are shapely and round.

Mammoth Hunters

Zaraysk (about 150 km [95 miles] southeast of Moscow) is one of the mammoth hunter sites on the Russian plain, part of the Kostienki /Avdeevo culture during the Gravettian period of the last Ice Age. That's when humans were making the transition from functional tool-making to art and adornment. And Venuses were very much part of that story.

The Zaraysk hunters were never more than a small tribe of several dozen people. They lived in semi-subterranean pit-houses up to 5 metres long, with roofs made of mammoth ivory and covered with hides. The Zaraysk Venus was found in a deep storage pit, dating approximately 20,000 years ago, along with a smaller, unfinished sister. She was carefully buried on a deposit of fine sand, with red ochre spread about (the colour of blood), and the hole plugged with the shoulder-blade of a woolly mammoth.

It was a tough time to be alive -- a peri-glacial tundra world. Let's say, if the climate were any harsher, no people could have lived there at all. Still, there was one huge compensation: plenty of woolly mammoths roamed the tundra. Tremendous quantities of mammoth bones were found in the settlement, as well as bones of deer, hare, bison, birds and rodents. Wood was scarce, but flint, bone and ivory were plentiful, so that raw materials for food, fuel and tools were readily available.

Venuses from one end of Eurasia to the other

During the Gravettian, craftspeople were carving human and animal figurines right across the Eurasian land mass from the French Pyrenees to Lake Baikal in Siberia.* We'll just look at a few uppity women, leaving the beasts and rare male figurines for others to deal with.

There are over 100 female images -- or at least naked portions of the female anatomy -- carved in soft stone, mammoth ivory, and bone. They picture the full scope of womanhood, ranging from pre-pubescent girls to matronly women in various stages of pregnancy to much older, post-menopausal women. While there are drastic differences between La Belle France and Siberia, some similarities are striking regardless of time and place.

First of all, certain parts of the figure are emphasized while others are deliberately neglected. The hair-styles, breasts, abdomen, hips, thighs and vulva are usually exaggerated while the extremities (heads, arms, hands, legs, and feet) and facial features are often lacking. They are typically "bountiful, fat-layered and face-less", like the Avdeevo Venus (left).

But, as her new near-neighbour from Zaraysk clearly shows, there is no absolute rule: even breasts may be minimalized. Women are always uppity, I suppose, and refuse to be stereotyped.

The Zaraysk lady and her Facebook friends

All the Venuses I am illustrating come from the Kostienki /Avdeevo cultural area in southwest Russia and the Ukraine near the Black Sea.** The sheer number and variety of these female figurines is astonishing and they show remarkable similarities to one another as well as to the others across Europe.

That doesn't mean that they all look the same. On the contrary.

Below are four ladies from the Avdeevo site, dating to 22,000 years BCE. Though about the same height (15 cm), they range from slender to chubby, to fat and obese. The shoulders are narrow, the chests flattened and elongated, with large, almost teardrop-shaped breasts dropping to the belly below. The lady on the left is pregnant, the others possibly not. And the slender Venus (right) has unusual delicately carved facial features and lines representing a complicated hairstyle or headdress; this piece stands out against the great majority of females lacking faces.



Nakedness is relative

One important element of some of the ladies from this area is the fact that they are less naked than many of those elsewhere in Europe. While some are as naked as the day they were born, others wear enigmatic articles of clothing or woven-looking decoration.

This Venus on the right from Kostienki, for example.

Her great boobs rest on an almost circular belly. The faceless head bends towards her chest while the arms are pressed to the body, with her hands on the belly. The surface of her head is covered with rows of incisions indicating a hair style or headdress, which gives her head the look of a battered golf ball (indeed, this style is sometimes called 'golf ball heads'). So far, so characteristic. But lines that cross the chest form a breast ornament that runs around her body and is tied in the back -- looking for all the world like a bizarre, misplaced brazziere.

Such depictions of items of clothing has led to the idea that some Palaeolithic people may have already mastered the skills long thought to have arisen much later in human history: the ability to weave plant fibres into cloth, rope, nets and baskets.

That might explain the mysterious cone-shaped object (below left) found at Zaraysk.

"Also among the finds was an object carved from mammoth ivory, shaped like a cone with its top removed. The cone is densely ornamented and has a hole running through its centre.

The authors note that the object is unique among Palaeolithic artefacts. 'The function of this decorated object remains a puzzle,' they say."

I'm an archaeologist and can't resist a mystery: it looks awfully like later spindle whorls to me, the small round weights used in the spinning of thread which make the spindle revolve more smoothly. When you find them on archaeological sites (and they're all but indestructible), that's good evidence for local weaving.

Will chubby Venus please turn around?



This pregnant Venus, also from Kostienki and made of mammoth bone, shows the characteristic big hanging breasts of many such figures. In the rear view she can be seen wearing a fringe or girdle. Since the girdle doesn't circle her belly, I wonder (as one woman to another) how it ever stayed in place. However, that's not the burning question of the day. Rather, I'd like to focus on her grossly over-developed buttocks -- for she is undoubtedly steatopygous -- and it was such a rump that gave rise to the first great theory to explain the meaning of the Venuses.

That bum theory, and many of the ideas that followed, will be the subject of the second part of this post.

During which, Zenobia will reveal her own rear view on the matter.



My thanks to The Archaeological Review for alerting me to the Zaraysk site's mystery object.

* For an excellent summary, of which I've made much use, see Karen Diane Jennett's honors thesis (Texas State University) 'Female Figures of the Upper Paleolithic', 2008.

** Paleolithic figurines are classified by their homelands: the Pyrenees-Aquitaine Group (Southwestern France); an Italian Mediterranean Group; the Rhine-Danube Group, which boasts the most widely known female figurine, the Venus of Willendorf ; our own Russian Group (southwest Russia and the Ukraine near the Black Sea), and the far away Siberian Group.

Illustrations:

Zaraysk Venus
: discovered by Hizri Amirkhanov and Sergey Lev of the Russian Academy of Sciences, published in Antiquity.

Others: 'Venus Figures from Russia, the Ukraine and sites East of the Donau Mouth'.


Updated 9 January 2010:


Archaeologists discover 34,000 year old plant fibre materials

Harvard archaeologists discovered flax fibres that are more than 34,000 years old, making them the oldest fibres known to have been used by humans. The fibres were discovered during excavations in a cave in the Republic of Georgia.

The flax, which would have been collected from the wild and not farmed, could have been used to make linen and thread which would then have been used to fashion garments for warmth, sew leather pieces, make cloths, or tie together packs that might have aided the mobility of our ancient ancestors from one camp to another.

The fibres are too tiny to know exactly how their purpose but there is good evidence that the Palaeolithic inhabitants of the cave had cut, twisted and dyed the flax (pictures here). Harvard team leader Ofer Bar-Yosef said they represent evidence of a "critical invention for early humans."

So it now seems probable that the Kostienki and other Palaeolithic Venuses are indeed wearing items of woven cloth.

It just took science a little time to catch up with their dress sense.




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