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What is Gravettian Culture?
In prehistoric art, the term 'Gravettian' describes the second archaeological industry or culture, to be developed by modern humans (known as Cro-Magnons) in Europe.
It followed the Aurignacian culture about 30,000 BC, shortly after the Neanderthals became extinct, and forms the second phase of the 'Upper Paleolithic Revolution'.
Archaeologists highlight two regional variants:
- The Western Gravettian, named after the type site of La Gravette in the French Dordogne, and known from paleolithic caves in Britain, France, Spain and northern Italy; and
- The Eastern Gravettian, extending across Central Europe and Russia, which is known from archaeological sites like Pavlov 1 and Předmostí in the Czech Republic, Buran-Kaya in the Crimea and Kozarnika in Bulgaria. Gravettian hunters in the Eastern flat lands specialized in hunting mammoths, and typically occupied open air settlements, rather than caves.
In Spain and France, the culture was succeeded by the Solutrean, while in Italy, the Balkans, and southern Russia it continued as the so-called Epigravettian.
Building upon the achievements of their Stone Age predecessors, Gravettian tool-makers and artists continued to innovate in areas such as tool-making, hunting, sculpture and painting, setting new standards of behavioural modernity.
Upper Paleolithic Timeline
- Aurignacian: 40,000-30,000 BC
- Gravettian: 30,000-20,000 BC
- Solutrean: 20,000-15,000 BC
- Magdalenian: 15,000-10,000 BC
- Gravettian tool technology is noted for its Gravette points - small pointed blades with straight blunt backs - used mainly to hunt big game.
- Leaf-shaped points, known as Flechettes, are also common. At some sites, their consistency of shape - stretched, thin and sublozangoid - implies a high degree of standardization in the method of production.
- Tanged tools are another diagnostic marker, especially in Western Europe. They include hafted butchering knives.
- Gravettian tool-makers also produced a range of small tools, made of animal bone as well as stone. A good example is the lissoir, a curved implement typically shaped from deer ribs and used to work animal hides to make them softer, and more waterproof.
- A whole range of animal bones was used in toolmaking. For example, the ribs, fibulas, and metapodia of horses were used to make awls, smoothers and barbed points, while reindeer were prized for their antlers, ulnas, ribs, tibias and teeth. The bones and teeth of mammoths, bears, wolves and hares were also exploited.
- Gravettian hunter gatherers also used plant-based fibres, like willow bast, to make nets, to catch small game and fish.
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Gravettian innovation in the development of small tools, is likely linked to their most famous contribution to Stone Age culture - a form of prehistoric sculpture which spread across Europe from France to Siberia.
It consists of tiny portable carvings of obese nude females - known as venus figurines - which have become an iconic idiom of Upper Paleolithic art from both the western and eastern Gravettian, although stylistic differences exist between the two.
Famous examples include: the Venus of Willendorf (Austria), the Venus of Moravany (Slovakia), and the Mal'ta, Buret and Kostenki venuses.
Another masterpiece is the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (Czech Republic), a ceramic venus figurine dated to between 29,000 and 25,000 BC, which is the world's oldest piece of ceramic art.
Also from the site of Dolní Věstonice, is the extraordinary mammoth ivory sculpture of a woman's head, known as Portrait Head XV, dated to 25,000 BC, now in the Brno Museum.
In France, Gravettian mobiliary art is exemplified by the tiny Venus of Brassempouy (Landes, France).
Prehistoric relief sculpture is also seen for the first time during the Gravettian period. Two famous examples include: the salmon relief at Abri du Poisson and the Venus of Laussel (Venus with a Horn), both in the Dordogne.
Cave painting also blossomed during the Gravettian era, in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, most especially in southwestern France.
Highlights include: Pech Merle's Spotted Horses (Lot, France), the Gargas Cave hand stencils (Haute-Garonne, France), and the red ochre animal frieze at Cougnac Cave (Lot, France).
In addition, Gravettian cave painters made a significant contribution to the paintings at Altamira, in Cantabria, northern Spain.
Gravettian expertise in sharp tool technology led to greater refinement in rock engravings, in caves and outdoors.
See, for instance, the Cussac Cave engravings (Dordogne, France) featuring characteristic Gravettian assemblages of woolly mammoths, bison and horses, and the Roucadour Cave painted engravings of over 14 different animal species (Lot, France).
Recently, new examples of Gravettian rock art were found in several of the Aitzbitarte caves, in the Spanish Basque region.
The imagery consists largely of petroglyphs of bison, in which the animals' horns and legs are drawn in the Gravettian style, without using normal perspective.
Gravettian rock engravers also initiated several galleries of open air petroglyphs. See, for example, the rock art in the Coa Valley (28,000-22,000 BC) in northeastern Portugal.
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Famous Gravettian Artworks
Here is a short chronological list of the most famous items of Gravettian painting, sculpture and rock art.
- Venus of Willendorf
Oolitic limestone figure. Lower Austria.
- Venus of Galgenberg
Carved from serpentine. Lower Austria.
- Venus of Dolní Věstonice
Clay-fired figurine. Moravia, Czech Rep.
- Pech Merle Cave
Paintings, signs, handprints. Lot, France.
- Roucadour Cave
Engravings, hand stencils, signs. Quercy, Lot, France.
- Grande Grotte Arcy-sur-Cure
Animal paintings, hand stencils. Burgundy, France.
- Cussac Cave
Large scale animal engravings. Périgord, France.
- Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures
Rock carvings of woolly mammoths and aurochs. Ardèche Valley, France.
- Venus of Savignano
Serpentine venus figurine. Savignano sul Punaro, Italy.
- Cosquer Cave
Hand stencils, engravings, paintings. Now 80% submerged.
- Portrait Head XV
Oldest portrait bust. Brno Museum, Czech Rep.
- Grimaldi Venuses
Female statuettes. Liguria, Italy.
- Gargas Cave
Hand stencils, engravings. Haute-Garonne, France.
- Venus of Monpazier
Limonite venus figurine. Dordogne, France.
- Venus of Laussel
Limestone low-relief sculpture. Dordogne, France.
- Abri du Poisson
Relief sculpture of salmon. Dordogne, France.
- Venus of Brassempouy
Mammoth ivory carving. Landes, south-west France.
- Cougnac Cave
Placard-type signs, "Wounded men".
- Venus of Lespugue
Mammoth ivory carving. Haute-Garonne, France.
- Coa Valley Rock Art
Open air petroglyphs. Portugal.
- Venus Figurines of Kostenki
Totemic female statuettes. Voronezh, Russia.
- Venus of Moravany
Mammoth ivory carving. Western Slovakia.
- Avdeevo Venuses
Ivory/stone figurines. Kursk, Russia.
- Gagarino Venuses
Mammoth ivory carvings. Lipetsk, Russia.
- Mal'ta Venuses
Totemic ivory figurines. Irkutsk, Siberia.
- Buret Venuses
Ivory/stone figures. Irkutsk, Siberia.
For more about the chronology of the Stone Age, especially the development of portable sculpture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
(1) "Upper Paleolithic Hunting Tactics and Weapons in Western Europe". Straus, L.G. (1993). Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association. University of New Mexico. 4 (1): 83–93.
(2) "Ice Age Communities May Be Earliest Known Net Hunters". Pringle, H (1997). Science. 277 (5330): 1203–1204.
(3) "Venus Figurines". Brian M. Fagan, Charlotte Beck. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, 1996, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195076189 pp. 740–741
(4) "Redefining shared symbolic networks during the Gravettian in Western Europe: New data from the rock art findings in Aitzbitarte caves (Northern Spain)." Diego Garate, Olivia Rivero, Joseba Rios-Garaizar, Martín Arriolabengoa, Iñaki Intxaurbe, Sergio Salazar. PLOS ONE, 2020; 15 (10): e0240481.
(5) Pamela B. Vandiver, Olga Soffer, Bohuslav Klima and Jiři Svoboda, "The Origins of Ceramic Technology at Dolni Věstonice, Czechoslovakia", Science, New Series, 246, No. 4933 (November 24, 1989: pp. 1002–1008).