In this lesson, we explore the Venus of Willendorf, one of the oldest examples of art which exists today. For over a century archaeologists have discussed its potential meanings, and in the process have drawn potentially significant conclusions about Paleolithic society.
The Venus of Willendorf
Museums are built as shrines to old things.
In the Louvre, in Paris, one can’t take more than a few steps without almost tripping over pottery or statues that date back to Roman and Greek civilizations. Even your local county museum probably has a few Civil War-era military coats or a broken sword or two. Nothing, however, can quite compare to the artifact which currently resides in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. The Venus of Willendorf, discovered by archaeologist Joseph Szombathy in 1908 near the Austrian town of Willendorf, dates to somewhere between 22,000 and 24,000 BCE.The Venus of Willendorf is one of the oldest and most complete surviving examples of Paleolithic, prehistoric art.
The statue – seen below – stands at just over 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) in height, and exhibits several exaggerated female features including its breasts, stomach, and pubic area. It is carved from oolitic limestone that is uncharacteristic of the region within Austria in which it was found, causing scholars to conclude that it was likely carried to the location by a nomadic community.
Possible Meanings and Theoretical Ideas
The emphasis placed on the exaggerated female body parts has led some scholars to suggest that the statue may have been a symbol of fertility, or perhaps even a carving depicting an ancient goddess.
This theoretical idea, which is one of the earliest to be offered about the statue, is in part why the statue acquired the name ‘Venus,’ after the Roman goddess of love and fertility. However, modern art history scholars have spearheaded a campaign to rename the statue the ‘Woman of Willendorf’, rather than the ‘Venus of Willendorf’, because the reasons behind the nicknaming were an inherently sexist joke.Archaeologists have also suggested that the statue may have been a charm for men to carry while on prolonged hunting trips, possibly for good luck on the hunt or as a reminder of the women back home. This theoretical idea comes from the statue’s small size and lack of a recognizable face. Its size would have allowed nomadic hunters, who necessarily traveled lightly, to carry it easily. In addition, its lack of a face means it probably was not meant to depict one person in particular but rather was more likely created as a symbol of all women in general.
Possible Conclusions about Paleolithic Society
From these theoretical meanings, archaeologists have drawn some possible conclusions about prehistoric, Paleolithic society.
If the statue represented an ancient female deity, then religious culture must have been present in hunting and gathering communities previously thought to have little or no religious awareness in the way we think of religious devotion today with charms, iconography, and so forth. By extension, if female deities were common, women may have held a more important position within prehistoric nomadic communities than previously thought. Some scholars have even hypothesized that the Venus of Willendorf provides potential evidence that matriarchal nomadic groups may have existed in Paleolithic times.
The Venus of Willendorf, also known by the more politically correct title of the Woman of Willendorf, is one of the oldest and most complete surviving examples of prehistoric art, dating to somewhere between 22,000 and 24,000 BCE. It was discovered by archaeologist Josef Szombathy in 1908 near the Austrian town of Willendorf, and now resides in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.Standing at just over 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) in height, this unique statues exhibits several exaggerated female features including its breasts, stomach, and pubic area.
It is carved from oolitic limestone, which is uncharacteristic of the region in which it was found, causing scholars to conclude that it was likely carried to the location by a nomadic community.The emphasis placed on the exaggerated female body parts has led scholars to suggest a number of possible meanings or potential purposes for the statue including that it may have been a symbol of fertility, the symbolic depiction of an ancient goddess, a good luck charm of some sort, or even a symbolic representation of all women. Some scholars have even hypothesized that the Venus of Willendorf provides potential evidence that some nomadic groups may have been dominated by a matriarchy.