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Venus of Brassempouy

Oldest carving with facial detail
Gravettian sculpture: 23,000 BC

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Front and side view of Venus of Brassempouy, Grotte du Pape, Southwestern France
Venus of Brassempouy. Image by Jean-Gilles Berizzi. (Public Domain)

Oldest Prehistoric Face

The Venus of Brassempouy is a tiny prehistoric sculpture from the era of Upper Paleolithic art.

Made from ivory, it consists only of the head and neck of the original carving - the rest being lost in antiquity.

The Brassempouy carving is important because it is one of the few depictions of a human face, made during the Stone Age, and possibly the oldest prehistoric art of its type in the world, after the Dolní Věstonice Portrait Head (25,000 BC).

It belongs to the class of venus figurines carved during the Gravettian era, and dates to about 23,000 BC.

Other famous venus figurines found in France include: the Venus of Monpazier (23,000 BC) and the Venus of Lespugue (23,000 BC).

For more details of Paleolithic sculpture from the last Ice Age, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Discovery & Excavation

The Venus of Brassempouy was discovered in April 1894 during the archaeological excavation of the Grotte du Pape (the Pope's cave), just outside the southern French village of Brassempouy, some 60 km northwest of Pau.

The Grotte du Pape is part of an underground network of limestone cavities (known locally as the "Pouy caves") which also includes the Cave of the Hyenas, the Gallery of the Megaloceros, and the Dubalen Shelter.

The Grotte du Pape was first examined in 1881 by Pierre-Eudoxe Dubalen (1851-1936). Then, during the 1890s, it was excavated by Joseph de Laporterie (1850-1935), and Édouard Piette (1827-1906) who found the venus.

More recently (1981-2004), the site was re-excavated by Henri Delporte, Dominique Buisson, Dominique Henry-Gambier and François Bon.

In 2013, all "Pouy caves" were classified as historical monuments.

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Characteristics

The Venus of Brassempouy - also known as "la Dame à la Capuche" (lady with the Hood) - was carved from mammoth ivory.

It measures 3.5 cm in height, 2.2 cm deep and 1.9 cm wide.

It was given the name "venus" purely because of other ivory carvings found in the cave, because it has little in common with the series of venus figurines that emerged during the late Aurignacian and Gravettian periods.

To begin with, venuses typically have a featureless face and head - several have no head at all. But Brassempouy has clear facial features including forehead, eyebrows, eyes and nose, but no mouth. (Perhaps the artist was not able to finish the work.)

Moreover, the top and sides of the head are incised with a pattern of braided/plaited hair (or a form of Pharaoh-style headdress).

Also, venus figurines typically have outsized breasts, buttocks and thighs, together with exaggerated genitalia.

The petite nature of Brassempouy's facial detail suggests that her lost body did not conform to the 'venus' stereotype, although this is by no means certain.

Dating

The Venus of Brassempouy is dated to approximately 23,000 BC, around the middle of the Gravettian (Upper Perigordian) period.

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Other Carvings from Grotte du Pape

In addition to "la Dame à la Capuche", a number of other items of mobiliary art - mostly mammoth ivory carvings - were recovered from the Grotte du Pape. They included:

Other Famous Venus Figurines

The Venus of Brassempouy was sculpted during the same period as several other similar statuettes, including the "Venus of Dolni Vestonice" (Czech Republic), the "Venus of Savignano" (Italy), the "Grimaldi Venuses" (Italy) and the "Venus Figurines of Kostenki" (Voronezh, Russia).

Museum Display

The Venus of Brassempouy is lodged at the the Musée d'Archéologie Nationale at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, and is usually displayed to the public only during temporary shows of Prehistoric sculpture. A replica is on display in the Maison de la Dame, at Brassempouy, along with replicas of other famous works of paleolithic art, like the Austrian "Venus of Willendorf".

References

(1) "The Women of Brassempouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation" (PDF). Randall White. (December 2006). Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. 13 (4): 251 ff.
(2)"Painted Caves: Palaeolithic Rock Art in Western Europe." Andrew Lawson. (24 May 2012). Oxford University Press. p. 47.
(3) "From artifact to icon: an analysis of the Venus figurines in archaeological literature and contemporary culture." L. Lander. 2005: Durham theses, Durham University.

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