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Venus of Laussel

Gravettian bas-relief carving
Venus a la corne: dated 23,000 BC

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Relief sculpture known as Venus of Laussel
Venus of Laussel. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Venus of Laussel

The Venus of Laussel, also known as "La Venus a la corne" (Venus with a Horn), is a prehistoric sculpture carved in bas-relief from the Dordogne region of southwestern France.

It belongs to the series of venus figurines, created during the era of Gravettian culture, which have turned up in countries across Europe. It is the oldest art of its type.

It is currently part of the collection of Upper Paleolithic art at the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux, France.

The Venus of Laussel isn't the only venus sculpture to come from the Dordogne, Another one - the Venus of Monpazier - was unearthed from a field in 1970.

Other French caves with important bas-relief carvings include: Roc-de-Sers Cave (17,200 BC) in the Charente; Cap Blanc (13,000 BC) in the Dordogne, Roc-aux-Sorciers (13,000 BC), in the Vienne, and the Tuc d'Audoubert Cave in the Ariège.

The Vézère Valley area in the Dordogne, is a major centre of paleolithic art (40,000-10,000 BC). Indeed, the "Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley" have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.

Note: to see how the Laussel relief fits into the evolution of other types of rock art created during the Ice Age, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

Discovery

The Venus of Laussel was discovered in the Laussel rock shelter (Abri de Laussel), in 1911, by Dr. Jean-Gaston Lalanne, a psychiatrist and amateur archaeologist.

It was first preserved and displayed in a small private museum belonging to Lalanne. In 1960, his family generously gifted his entire collection to the new archaeological museum in Bordeaux, which is now the Museum of Aquitaine.

Characteristics

The Venus of Laussel measures 46 cm in height and was originally decorated with red ochre pigments.

It was one of five bas-relief sculptures engraved in the Laussel rock shelter, located near the town of Laussel, in the Vézère Valley.

Unlike other famous Venus figurines, the Laussel sculpture is not portable, and is thus classified as parietal art, rather than mobiliary art.

Even so, it does share most of the iconographic features of the type.

To begin with, it presents a nude female figure, with pendulous breasts and oversized hips, belly and buttocks.

And like most venuses, it has no facial features, and no feet. It does, however, have clearly visible hands and fingers, which is unusual.

The venus's left hand rests on her swollen belly (enhanced by the convex rock surface), while her right hand holds an animal horn - probably that of a bison - engraved with a series of 13 lines.

To the right of the venus, there is a miniature engraving of a feather-shaped (penniform) symbol, for which there is no obvious explanation.

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Interpretation

This particular form of prehistoric art is traditionally believed to be a type of fertility symbolism.

In the case of the Venus of Laussel, the horn may be a symbol of abundance (a cornucopia), and its 13 notches may refer to the 13 months of the lunar year or the 13 days of the waxing moon, and may thus be associated with either fertility or menstruation.

The Laussel shelter is thought to have been a ceremonial venue, as well as a dwelling site. As a result, some experts, believe the shelter may have been used by a cult for the enhancement of fertility, similar to the ritualistic "increase" ceremonies celebrated in aboriginal rock art in Australia.

Other Reliefs at Laussel

At least four other sculptural reliefs were discovered in the Laussel shelter.

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Europe's Prehistoric Venuses

Venus figurines have been recovered from archaeological sites across Europe. Here is a short list of venuses from the Aurignacian and Gravettian (Upper Perigordian) cultures:

Aurignacian Culture

Gravettian Culture

References

(1) "La Venus a la corne et Laussel." (The Venus with the horn and Laussel) Roussot, A., 2000: Bordeaux: Editions SudOuest.
(2) "The Venus Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic". Soffer O, Adovasio JM, Hyland DC (2000). Current Anthropology. 41 (4): 511–537.
(3) "L'abri sous-roche du moulin de Laussel (Dordogne)" (The rock shelter of the Laussel mill) Capitan L., Peyrony D., 1903. Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris, V° Série, tome 4, 1903. pp. 558-560.

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