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.


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.


  1. In hindsight, the commonalities between all the figures are obvious!

    I've no doubt you'll get to the bottom of it.

  2. Very nice discussion of the Zaraysk Venus. Thanks!

    Judith, on the subject of string skirts/girdles and Venus figures, as well as early creation of textiles, you should read Elizabeth Wayland Barber's "Women's Work, The First 20,000 Years." Amazon link:


  3. Oh, and the "mystery object"? Is SO clearly a spindle whorl. I can't imagine what the mystery's about.

  4. Anonymous9/12/08 12:46

    Judith: I'm another who can't wait for the next post on this and your summary. What do you make of these ladies? Maybe the Neanderthal women, as in the case of Wilma, were lean and tough, hunting mammoths with the guys and having babies on the side. But these Sapiens were strictly housewives.


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