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Venus Figurines of Kostenki

Oldest prehistoric art in Russia
Gravettian sculpture: 22,500 BC

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Venuses of Kostenki (Kostienki), Gravettian female statuettes, Southern Russia
Kostenki venus figurines from the Kostenki-Borshevo complex in Southwestern Russia. Image by Don Hitchcock. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Kostenki Figurines: Summary

The prehistoric carvings known as the venuses of Kostenki (Kostienki, or Kostyonki) are the earliest known examples of prehistoric sculpture in Russia.

They belong to the series of European venus figurines, that proliferated during the Gravettian era (25,000-20,000 BC).

The venuses were found at the archaeological complex of Kostenki-Borshevo, in southwestern Russia.

The Kostenki-Borshevo sites were occupied during the Middle Paleolithic by Neanderthals, who were displaced by the first wave of Homo sapiens around 30,000 BC.

It was these hunter-gatherers who were responsible for all the prehistoric art found in the region.

The figurines are held in the collection of Upper Paleolithic art in the Hermitage Museum, in Saint-Petersburg.

Other famous Russian venus figurines include: the "Zaraysk Venus" (southeast of Moscow), the "Gagarino Venuses" (Voronezh), the "Avdeevo Venuses" (near Kursk, west of Voronezh), the "Mal'ta Venuses" and "Buret Venuses" (northwest of Irkutsk), and the "Venus of Eliseevichi" (Bryansk region, northwest of Kursk).

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Discovery & Excavation

The Kostenki-Borshevo archaeological complex consists of a group of about 26 different sites near the villages of Kostenki (Kostyonki) and Borshchevo (Borshchyovo), on the western bank of the Don River, in the Khokholsky District, some 25 km south of Voronezh.

The sites of the complex were catalogued as "Kostenki 1–21" and "Borshchevo 1–5". Mammoth bones have been found in abundance at Kostenki, whose name actually derives from the Russian word for "bone".

Kostenki-1 was first excavated by Ivan Semenovich Polyakov (1845-1887) in 1879. Later, an extensive series of excavations led by Pyotr Petrovich Efimenko (1884-1969), were conducted during the 1920s and 30s.

After the Great Patriotic War, the remaining sites of the complex were examined and documented, notably Kostenki-12 (Volkovska) and Kostenki-14 (Markina Gora).

Much of the paleolithic art recovered from the site are on display at the State Archaeological Museum at Kostenki.

How Old are the Kostenki Venuses?

Based on stylistic comparisons with other figurines from Avdeevo, Gagarino and Mal'ta, the Kostenki venuses have been indirectly dated to between 23,000 and 21,000 BC. Some archaeologists consider them to be older, but dating evidence is lacking.

For more about the evolution of Stone Age sculpture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Kostenki Venuses: Characteristics

There seems to be two differing styles of female figurine at Kostenki.

One style, while not being quite as voluptuous as (say) the Venus of Moravany from Slovakia, is still broadly in line with Western European variants.

A second style (perhaps influenced by Avdeevo artists) is thinner.

It is characterized by a faceless sculpture, inclination slightly forward with head down, in a standing position with a relatively upright orientation of the back and legs to knee level or below.

Ivory Venus

The best-known Kostenki venus is the ivory carving listed as "Kostienki 1: number 3".

It is carved from mammoth tusk and stands roughly 28 cm in height.

It has several characteristics typical of most Aurignacian and Gravettian venus statuettes: heavy, pendulous breasts, large buttocks, a swollen belly, and a clearly defined vulva. Seen from behind, it looks as if she is wearing a girdle, or fringe.

It dates to roughly 22,500 BC.

In comparison with the grossly exaggerated feminine features of Central and Western European figurines - like the "Venus of Hohle Fels" (Germany), the "Venus of Moravany" (Slovakia), or the "Venus of Lespugue" (France), the ivory venus of Kostenki is relatively naturalistic.

The work depicts a tall, pregnant woman, without the exaggerated obesity, resulting in a more true-to-life image than usual.

That said, some archaeologists who believe venus figurines were designed as "fertility symbols", also theorize that obesity (during times of plenty) was more common in western Europe than in Russia. So Russian artists would have had to 'imagine' obesity, hence their venus figurines look less realistic, they say.

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Limestone Venus

After the ivory carving, the most famous of the Kostenki statuettes is probably the fragment referred to as the "Limestone Venus of Kostenki".

This work - of which only the trunk and upper thighs remain - was recovered in 1988. It measures 14 cm in height and is instantly recognizable from the bracelets on its wrists.

It dates to approximately 23,000 BC.

Limestone Venus with Cap

Another limestone venus from Kostenki, is famous for its unusual detail. The head is incised with a braid-like pattern resembling a hair-style, or cap.

Around the neck is a plait, which looks like a halter-neck dress fastening, tied up at the back. The venus has bracelets on her arms.

It dates to about 22,000 BC.

Ancient Pottery at Kostenki-1

According to a recent study into early ceramic objects at Vela Spila Cave in Eastern Europe, fragments of pottery with cordage impressions were found in layers 1–2 at Kostenki-1, in southern Russia, and radiocarbon dated to 23,500 BC.

If this is true, Kostenki is home to the oldest ancient pottery in history. At present, the oldest is the Amur River Basin pottery, in the Russian Far East.

See: Ancient Pottery Timeline (from 34,000 BC).

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Mobiliary Art in Russia

Portable artworks dating back to the Stone Age have been found in caves, shelters and hunter-gatherer camps at many different sites across Russia.

These sites include: Amvrossievka, Apiantcha, Avdeevo, Borshchevo, Dobranitchevka, Dubovaya Balka, Eliseevichi, Gagarino, Gontzy, Ignatievskaya, Ilskaya, Kaïstrovaya Balka, Kapova, Kirovgrad, Klimaoutzy, Klinetz, Kosseoutzy, Kostienki/Kostyonki, Lissitchniki, Mezhirich, Kievo-Kirillovskaya, Mézine, Murakovka, Novgorod Severskyi, Ossokorovka, Ostrovskaya, Rogalik, Smelobskaya, Sungir, Suponevo, Timonovka, and Yudinovo, to name but a few.

Russia is also the home of the Shigir Idol (7,500 BC), the world's oldest wood carving, which was recovered from a peat bog in the Urals.

For the oldest cave paintings in Russia, see: Kapova Cave (14,500 BC).

Other European Venus Figurines

Venus figurines are believed to have been a type of fertility symbol designed to celebrate motherhood.

This extraordinary style of mobiliary art, of which some 100 examples are known, first appeared during the Aurignacian era, before proliferating during the Gravettian, only to disappear in the Magdalenian.

Famous venus figurines from the Gravettian period, include:

References

(1) "The Typology of Female Figurines of the Kostenki Paleolithic Culture". Gvozdover, M. D. (1989). Soviet Anthropology and Archaeology. 27 (4): 32–94.
(2) "The era of the great European cultures of the Northern-type hunters". iabrno.cz. Czech Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Archaeology in Brno, The Center for Paleolithic and Paleoethnological Research.
(3) "Early Upper Paleolithic in Eastern Europe and implications for the dispersal of modern humans". Anikovich, M. et al. (1 January 2007). Science. 315 (5809): 223–226.
(4) "First Epigravettian Ceramic Figurines from Europe (Vela Spila, Croatia)." (2012) Rebecca Farbstein, Dinko Radić, Dejana Brajković, Preston T. Miracle. PLoS ONE 7(7): e41437.

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