Types, famous sculptures
Reliefs, figurines, animal figures
Prehistoric sculpture is an important feature of cave art, alongside cave painting and engraving.
For example, relief sculpture - where a carving projects from a surface, but remains attached to it - is present in numerous paleolithic caves, either as a single item or as a stone frieze made up of several items.
Because it remains attached to the rock surface, this type of sculpting is referred to as parietal art.
On the other hand, 'sculpture in the round' (freestanding sculpture) is not attached to a surface, and is referred to as mobiliary art, because it is portable.
While parietal sculptures are made of stone, mobiliary ones can be fashioned from anything that can be carved or worked, including bone, ivory, antlers, wood, clay, and so on.
Because mobiliary sculptures can be made from softer materials and can be quite small, they typically involve lighter and smaller tools, and are easier to make.
And because they are portable, they can easily be traded. All this makes freestanding sculpture an ideal artform for prehistoric hunter-gatherers moving from camp to camp, or from region to region.
It also helps to explain the phenomenon of venus figurines, which appeared throughout Europe during the Gravettian culture.
The problem with portable sculptures is that they are easily lost.
Indeed, several Stone Age masterpieces have been discovered in waste heaps outside caves, or in the middle of fields.
In other words, paleolithic artists probably carved thousands of bone and wood figures or decorative objects, most of which were lost or discarded.
So even though many have been salvaged, it's likely they represent only a fraction of the carvings actually made.
In fact, along with abstract signs and symbols, portable art could conceivably have been the most common form of prehistoric art before much of it was lost.
Yes. Like painting and engraving, both of which require the artist to 'conceptualize' the image concerned, sculpture also requires significant mental effort.
Indeed, it is traditionally seen as more challenging and complex than two-dimensional art forms like drawing or painting.
After all, not only must prehistoric sculptors retain an image of the 'animal' in their mind, they must check constantly on the block of material out of which the image is due to emerge.
Prehistoric relief sculpture, in particular, was dependant on the range and availability of stone tools. Not surprisingly, therefore, as the quality and range of tools improved, so did sculpture.
Fortunately, modern man was significantly ahead of Neanderthals in the design of new tools, which led to improvements in all areas of Stone Age culture, notably during the Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian periods.
The oldest known prehistoric sculptures are the two objects known as the Venus of Berekhat Ram (Golan Heights), and the Venus of Tan-Tan (Morocco). Both are indirectly dated to at least 200,000 BC, and may be much older.
Tests show that both objects were initially created by natural processes but then man-made incisions were made to the objects to deliberately accentuate their human features. So their artistic quality derives from these symbolic modifications.
Excluding the two primitive venuses, mentioned above, there are six main categories of Stone Age sculpture.
We've chosen these particular categories because they are broadly chronological, although they do overlap.
We examine individual reliefs and statues later in the article.
The materials used by paleolithic sculptors were quite diverse and varied according to the region and locality.
Both bas-reliefs and haut-reliefs were carved out of cave rock, which was mostly limestone. However, clay was also used (bison reliefs, Tuc D'Audoubert Cave).
Most surviving works of mobiliary art are made from ivory (usually mammoth), reindeer antlers or animal bones, although wood was also popular if overly perishable.
In addition, artists also sculpted in stone, especially softer varieties like steatite and sandstone, as well as harder varieties such as quartzite and serpentine.
The ubiquitous venus figurines were carved in whatever material was at hand.
As well as ivory and the other materials listed above, these carvings were made from limonite (Venus of Monpazier), chlorite and soapstone (Grimaldi Cave Venuses), ceramic clay and bone ash (Venus of Dolní Věstonice), as well as volcanic rock (Gagarino Venuses) and black jet lignite (Venus of Monruz-Neuchâtel).
During the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, as tools became sharper, sculptors were able to carve marble, porphyry, and granite.
More rarely, they carved precious materials such as jade, silver and gold, and ultimately began casting with bronze, pewter and zinc.
Here is a list of the most famous and important items of paleolithic sculpture, with a short description of their main characteristics, provenance and age.
These works vary considerably in size, human features and human likeness.
Lion Man of Hohlenstein
Stadel: 38,000 BC
The Lion Man (in Germany, the "Löwenmensch" figurine) is the world's oldest sculpture (along with the Venus of Hohle Fels). Carved during the Aurignacian culture, and made of mammoth ivory, it is 31 cm tall, 5.6 cm wide, and 5.9 cm thick.
The figurine has the head of a cave lion with a human body. It stands upright, legs apart and arms by its sides.
Recent tests indicate it took more than 400 hours to carve. The carving was found in 1939, in the Swabian Jura of southwest Germany. It is currently in the Museum of Ulm.
Moravia: 24,000 BC
Not to be confused with the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, this sublime ivory head of a woman, is sculpted in the round. It is the world's oldest known portrait bust.
The head is 4.8 cms high, 2.4 cms wide, and 2.2 cms thick. It was found in 1891, and dated by the University of Kansas.
Recognized as the first real likeness of a human face, the portrait bust is now in the Pavilon Anthropos Museum in Brno, Czech Republic.
Venus of Brassempouy:
Made from ivory, it consists only of the head and neck of the original carving. It is not likely to be a regular venus figurine, as these works had featureless faces.
Discovered in April 1894 at Grotte du Pape, some 60 kms northwest of Pau in southern France, it is 3.5 cm in height, 2.2 cm deep and 1.9 cm wide, and has clear facial features including forehead, eyebrows, eyes and nose, but no mouth. The top and sides of the head are incised with a sort of Pharaoh-style headdress.
It is held at the the Musée d'Archéologie Nationale at Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Shigir Idol: 10,000 BC
The Shigir Idol is the world's oldest known wooden sculpture. Made out of 159-year old larch wood, it was recovered in fragments from a peat bog near Kirovgrad in 1894.
It has a stylized human head above a flattened, plank-shaped body, decorated on both sides with recognizable human faces and hands, as well as geometrical symbols, including zigzag lines, chevrons, and other abstract motifs.
It stands 2.8 metres (9 feet) tall and its date is confirmed by Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) tests. It is on display at the Sverdlovsk Regional History Museum, in Yekaterinburg.
Urfa Man/Balikligöl statue 9,000 BC
Urfa Man is a human-like statue found at Balikligöl, in southeast Turkey. It is contemporaneous with the important archaeological sites of Göbekli Tepe and Nevali Çori - also in Turkey.
It is carved out of sandstone and stands almost 1.90 meters tall. It has deep holes for eyes, which contain segments of black obsidian. It has a V-shaped collar or necklace, and the hands are clasped in front. It is currently in the Şanliurfa Museum, Turkey.
The term 'venus figurines' is an umbrella description relating to hundreds of female statuettes, created throughout Europe (from France to Siberia) mostly during the Gravettian culture (30,000-20,000 BC).
Typically, they measure between 2 and 8 inches in height, with a lozenge-shape, featuring an obese belly tapering to a featureless head and undefined legs. They rarely have arms and feet, or any facial detail. Their abdomen, hips, breasts, thighs, and vulva are usually grossly exaggerated.
Paleoanthropologists believe they were probably fertility symbols or some form of primitive religious icons, but no consenus exists as to their cultural significance.
The most famous venus figurines include:
Venus of Hohle Fels
38,000 BC: Ivory
Swabian Jura, Germany
Venus of Willendorf
28,000 BC: limestone
Venus of Dolní Věstonice
27,000 BC: ceramic
Moravia, Czech Rep
Venus of Lespugue
23,000 BC: ivory
22,500 BC: ivory/limestone
Venus of Moravany
21,000 BC: ivory
21,000 BC: ivory/stone
20,000 BC: ivory
Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia
20,000 BC: ivory/stone
Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia
Venus of Eliseevichi
13,000 BC; ivory
13,000 BC: jet lignite
Venus of Laussel
23,000 BC: Dordogne
One of five bas-relief sculptures found in the Abri de Laussel, in 1911, she is also known as the Venus with a Horn. Unlike other famous venuses, the Laussel is not portable.
Even so, she shares many of the venus characteristics, including: a nude female body, with pendulous breasts and oversized hips, belly and buttocks.
Also like the others she has no facial features, or feet, but does have clearly defined hands and fingers, which is unusual.
She measures 46 cm in height, and her left hand rests on her swollen belly, while her right hand holds a bison horn. She is on display in the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux, France.
Abri du Poisson Salmon
23,000 BC: Dordogne
This 1-metre long male salmon is carved in low relief on the ceiling of the rock shelter, and was originally decorated with red ochre. It formed the centrepiece of a large painted composition which has now fased. It is one of only ten fish which appear in Upper Paleolithic cave art.
The rock shelter itself was discovered in 1892, but its fish sculpture wasn't found until 20 years later, when Jean Marsan spotted it, covered in algae.
Roc de Sers Frieze
17,200 BC: Charente
Archaeologists view Roc de Sers as the benchmark of Solutrean relief sculpture. This reputation is based on the cave's 10-metre long frieze of animal figures carved in high relief.
Although it has been reassembled from 19 fragments of 14 limestone blocks, it has sufficient continuity of style to constitute a single composition.
The frieze features a total of 52 images of horses, bison, ibexes and musk ox. Most have large bodies but short legs. In addition, it includes two human figures.
About 70 percent of the figures are shaded with red ochre or other pigments to convey animation as well as volume.
The Roc de Sers frieze is on display at the French Museum of National Antiquities (Saint-Germain-en-Laye), although a replica is viewable at the site.
13,000 BC: Vienne
Roc-aux-Sorciers comprises two distinct rock shelters - Abri Bourdois and the slightly deeper Taillebourg Cave.
The site's main series of carvings (still virtually intact) is in Abri Bourdois and consists of a huge 20-metre long, 2.6-metre high sculpted frieze, created during the Magdalenian.
It depicts bison, horses, ibexes, and felines but also a number of female figures. Its quality has led to Roc-aux-Sorciers being dubbed the 'Lascaux of sculpture.'
In addition, a 10-metre long set of relief fragments were found in Taillebourg Cave, which has led archaeologists to believe that the entire assemblage makes up a single work of art, albeit sculpted in two locations.
They believe that originally the haut-relief frieze measured about 30 metres in length - the 20 metres in Abri Bourdois, plus about 10 metres (now in fragments) in Cave Taillebourg. In total, the work features 34 figures: 8 ibexes, 7 horses, 6 bison, 4 felines, 1 reindeer, 1 unidentified animal, and 4 anthropomorphic heads.
The main frieze remains in place at the Abri Bourdois, while fragments of about 50 reliefs and engravings from Cave Taillebourg are on display at the Musée d'Archéologie Nationale (MAN), at St Germain-en-Laye.
Cap Blanc Frieze
13,000 BC: Dordogne
Cap Blanc's frieze of high relief sculpture is on the rear wall of the cave. Despite some erosion, it is still seen as a touchstone of Magdalenian rock art.
The 13-metre long frieze contains 14 horses (or parts thereof), 13 bison and 2 reindeer, plus about a dozen unidentified animals.
Some of the figures are huge, with one central horse about 2 metres in length.
Like many paleolithic friezes, the Cap Blanc carvings were originally decorated with red ochre.
About 120 kms to the northwest, is the Abri de la Chaire-à-Calvin (Calvin's Pulpit), a rock shelter in the Charente. The shelter contains similar parietal art to Cap Blanc, namely a sculpted frieze which also dates to around 13,000 BC.
Tuc d'Audoubert Bison
13,000 BC: Ariège
Located next door to Les Trois Freres, the Tuc d'Audoubert cave is world famous for its pair of bison sculpted in high-relief in the cave's most remote chamber.
The figures are modelled in clay with a spatula-like tool and the sculptors fingers. The male bison is 63 cm long, 13 cm thick, and 31 cm high. The female is 61 cm long and 29 cm high. It is a mating scene about to happen.
The composition has no equivalent in any paleolithic art known to archaeology.
There are five other bison in the chamber, showing how important the species was to the sanctuary.
13,000 BC: H.Garonne
Montespan is home to the famous clay relief sculpture of a headless bear. The figure is riddled with spear holes, suggesting it was used in some sort of 'sympathetic magic' ritual.
Vogelherd Cave Carvings
From 38,000 BC: Germany
The animal carvings discovered in the Vogelherd Cave, in the eastern Swabian Jura, effectively redefined the sculptural achievements of the Aurignacian.
In particular, they highlighted the cognitive and artistic capabilities of early modern humans not long after they arrived in Europe. The carvings, all between three and six centimetres in height and dated from 38,000 to 28,000 BC, included several mammoths, a lion figurine, a wild horse and and two unidentified figures.
These unique animal figures - along with the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BC) from the same valley, and the Venus of Hohle Fels (38,000-33,000 BCE), from the neighbouring valley of the Ach - form a unique cache of Aurignacian art which complemented the extraordinary paintings being created at Chauvet Cave (34,500 BC) on the southern side of the Alps.
Bison Licking its Side
13,000 BC: Dordogne
Famous bison carved out of a reindeer antler fragment from the Abri de la Madeleine in the Dordogne. Used on a spear thrower (atlatl).
Lingjing Bird Figurine
11,500 BC Henan, China
This simple miniature figure of a passerine songbird, unearthed by construction workers in Central China's Yellow River Valley, is the oldest-known example of Chinese art.
The figurine, carved from a blackened bone, suggests that the art of sculpture arose in China independently of other parts of the world.
A CT scan revealed the artist used multiple tools in his work, including a grindstone, chisel, and several stone scrapers. The precision with which this artwork was sculpted indicates that the technique of carving was already established at the end of the Magdalenian in Europe.
11,000 BC: Tarn-et-Garonne
Found at Abri Montastruc in southern France, this famous carving features two swimming reindeer (male and female) following each other nose to tail. It is 22 cm in length, and was sculpted in a naturalistic style from mammoth ivory using a variety of stone tools, before being finely incised with anatomical detail and polished. Now in the British Museum.
Excavations at Abri Montastruc also yielded a beautiful carved mammoth used on a spear thrower.
Mas d'Azil Deer Carving
11,000 BC: Ariège
This delicate sculpture of a fawn deer giving birth, on which two birds are perched, decorated the end of a spear-thrower (atlatl). It was found at Mas d'Azil cave - the type site for Azilian tool culture - in southern France.
Divje Babe Flute
58,000 BC: Slovenia
Sculpted from a bear's thigh bone, this Neanderthal flute is the world's oldest known musical instrument.
Hohle Fels Flute
34,000 BC: Germany
Exquisitely carved out of a vulture bone but overshadowed by its famous sister, the Venus of Hohle Fels.
Ain Sakhri Lovers
9000 BC: British Museum
This semi-abstract phallic sculpture was discovered in one of the Ain Sakhri caves in the Judean desert, near Bethlehem. It is thought to be the oldest known depiction of a couple making love.
Made out of a calcite cobble, it shows two people face-to-face. One person has wrapped their arms around the shoulders of their lover in an embrace. The knees of one of the figures bend up over the legs of the other. The pebble has been cleverly carved so that, whichever way it is observed, the shape of the figurine is erotic.
Was this carving used for fertility rituals or is it an illustration on human love?
The sculpture appeared in the BBC TV series 'History of the World in 100 Objects'.
Göbekli Tepe Female Figure
and other sculptures
9,000 BC: Edessa, Turkey
Figurative sculptures from the stone-age hill-top sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe in Urfa province, Turkey, include a wide range of animals and birds, as well as anthropomorphic carvings.
They include several boars carved in high relief, as well as a lion-like figure, and a relief of a bull, fox and crane. All are dated between 9,000 and 8,000 BC.
The massive stone pillars at Göbekli Tepe are richly decorated with abstract anthropomorphic details, and reliefs of wild animals, offering rare insights into the particular iconography of the period.
The site's original excavator, Klaus Schmidt, believed it was a pilgrimage destination for worshippers within the region.
In 2018, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lepenski Vir Sculptures
From 7,000 BC: Serbia
Lepenski Vir (Lepena Whirlpool) is an important archaeological site of the Balkan Iron Gates culture, located on the banks of the Danube in Boljetin village, near Donji Milanovac.
The chronology of Lepenski Vir spans the period between 9,500 and 6,000 BC.
The site is celebrated for its numerous therianthropic sculptures carved out of sandstone cobbles, and characterized by their wide, fish-like mouths.
The two best known carvings are known as 'Praroditeljka' (foremother) (51 x 39 cms) and 'Rodonacelnik' (family founder) (52 x 33 cm). Both are made of quartz sandstone with traces of red pigment. The sculptures are now in the National Museum, Belgrade.
Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük
6,000 BC: Anatolia, Turkey
Terracotta clay sculpture of a naked, obese Mother Goddess figure about to give birth while seated on a throne. It is one of many treasures of Stone Age art - found at Çatalhöyük, in 1961, by archaeologist James Mellaart.
Mellaart himself believed the figure represented a fertility goddess but this interpretation is now disputed.
The figure is held at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, Turkey. Since 2012, Çatalhöyük has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
5,500-4,500 BC: Serbia
Vidovdanka is an anthropomorphic figurine and symbol of Vinca culture, which flourished in Serbia around 5,500 BC. It was discovered in debris 6 metres (20 ft) below the surface at Vinca-Belo Brdo near Belgrade - one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe - in 1930.
Made out of polished clay, it depicts a female figure, with emphasized eyes and nose. It is 30.7 centimetres tall. It is now in the National Museum of Serbia.
Thinker of Cernavoda
5000 BC: Romania
The Thinker of Cernavoda depicts a man seated on a stool with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.
This 11 cm tall terracotta sculpture of the Romanian Hamangia-culture (5,200-4,500 BC) is perhaps the world's first expression of human introspection. Very different from the usual emphasis on hunting and fertility. Hence its name, the thinker, after Rodin's famous sculpture.
The sculpture ('Ganditorul') was discovered along with its pair - the Sitting Woman of Cernavoda) in a Neolithic necropolis containing some 400 graves near Cernavoda, in the lower Danube region. The Hamangia people used to bury their dead with funerary goods like pots, adornments and figurines, like the Thinker and his Lady.
The work currently resides in the National Museum of Romanian History, Bucharest.
Sleeping Lady of Malta
3100 BC: Valetta
This terracotta figure of a reclining lady - probably a Mother-Goddess -is an iconic symbol of the prehistoric Temple Period (4100-2500 BC) on Malta.
It was discovered in one of the pits of the Hypogeum in Hal Saflieni, a Neolithic underground necropolis or burial centre.
The 12 cm figure bears traces of red ochre paint and may also represent death or eternal sleep. It is held at the National Museum of Malta, in Valetta.
Kneeling Bull with Vessel
3000 BC: Mesopotamia
This masterpiece of silver metalwork was made by Mesopotamian silversmiths during the Proto-Elamite Period.
The 16 cm silver bull wears a robe decorated with a lined pattern and holds a spouted vessel.
As no doubt intended, it displays an unusual blend of human and animal traits. The large neck joins distinctly human shoulders, which taper into arms ending in hooves.
Many ancient deities in the Middle East were hybrids - part-human, part-animal. Such images expressed the Mesopotamian belief in attaining power over the physical world by combining the superior physical attributes of various species. They were certainly quite common in Proto-Elamite art.
The function of this masterpiece remains uncertain. It is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
3,000 BC: Mesopotamia
This 8.8 cm standing lioness figure from the Proto-Elamite Period, is made from white magnesite or crystalline limestone. Scholars think it was carved in Elam, an ancient Mesopotamian region situated in modern-day southwestern Iran.
It was created by the same culture that saw the world's first writing, wheel and city states.
The Guennol sculpture's geographical origin is supported, stylistically, by similar leonine imagery on cylinder seals from the same location.
The lioness may represent the mythological Inanna, Goddess of Love and War.
When first created, it would have been ornamented with lapis lazuli. It was discovered at Ur by British archaeologist Sir C. Leonard Woolley. It is now in a private collection.
Ram in a Thicket (c.2500 BC)
A masterpiece of ancient art, this is one of the most famous pieces of Mesopotamian sculpture and it comes in two versions!
Although named after a Biblical passage in the Old Testament, this animal figure depicts a goat, rather than a sheep, and illustrates the ancient Mesopotamian myth that a goat standing on its hind legs signifies the fertility of the land.
The two figures were recovered from the Great Death Pit at Ur in 1929 by archaeologist Leonard Woolley. It was Woolley who named both works 'Ram in a Thicket' after the story in Genesis 22.13, in which God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but at the last moment Abraham sacrifices a nearby ram instead.
The two figures are made out of limestone and shell, ornamented with gold-leaf, silver plate, copper and lapis lazuli. One resides in the British Museum, London; the other in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.
Maikop Gold Bull
2500 BC: North Caucasus
This 6 cm masterpiece, created by Scythian goldsmiths, is one of four gold and silver bulls recovered by Nikolay Veselovsky in 1897 from the Maikop kurgan - a Bronze Age burial mound in the North Caucasus region of Russia.
The mound had a circumference of about 200 metres and contained the body of a supposed priest-king along with rich grave goods, including golden and silver bull figurines, as well as two women.
All the finds, including the gold bull, are held in the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg.
Some experts believe the Maikop burial to be contemporary with the first cities of Middle and Late Uruk-period Mesopotamia, 3700-3100 BC, since the Maikop Culture began about 3,700 BC and ended about 3,000 BC.
The Dancing Girl of
Mohenjo-Daro: 2500 BC
Mohenjo-Daro (Mound of the Dead Men) is an archaeological site in the province of Sindh, Pakistan. Built about 2500 BCE, it was a major centre of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization (also known as the Harappan Civilization).
This incredibly 'modern' piece of early Indian sculpture is a masterpiece of Harappan-culture bronze sculpture.
The statuette has large eyes, a flat nose, curly hair, and a broad forehead. She is a tall figure with long legs and arms and high neck. She wears a necklace and has 25 bracelets on her left arm and four bangles on her right arm. Her long hair is styled in a large bun which rests on her shoulder.
The bronze statue was made using the lost-wax casting technique and showed that the Indus Valley Civilization was extremely proficient in processes such as casting, and other metallurgical methods.
It also showed that dance was an important feature of Harappan culture.
Mohenjo-Daro was abandoned around 1800-1900 BC as the Indus Valley Civilization declined, and was not rediscovered until the 1920s.
The Dancing Girl is now in the National Museum of Art, New Delhi.
Imdugud Between Two Stags
2500 BC: Mesopotamia
This large metal panel sculpture - a copper relief on bitimen and wood - was discovered by archaeologist Henry Hall in 1919, at the base of a temple foundation in the ancient Sumerian city of Tell al-'Ubaid, near Ur in southern Iraq.
Originally set in stone over the doorway of the temple of Ninhursag, it portrays the lion-headed eagle Imdugud with wings outspread, protecting two stags. The work measures 259 cm in width; 107 cms in height. It is now preserved in the British Museum, London.
For more about the chronology of paleolithic sculpture, see Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
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