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Venus of Lespugue

Steatopygian female ivory carving
Gravettian sculpture: 23,000 BC

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Steatopygian Venus of Lespugue, French statuette
Venus of Lespugue. Image by José-Manuel Benito/Locutus Borg. (Public Domain)

Venus of Lespugue: Summary

The Venus of Lespugue is a prehistoric sculpture of an obese, nude female from the Upper Paleolithic.

It is one of several venus figurines found in French caves, such as the "Venus of Brassempouy" (Landes), the "Venus of Monpazier" (Dordogne), the bas-relief "Venus of Laussel" (Dordogne).

It is noted in particular for its semi-abstract style, as well as its 'skirt' of twisted fibres, which is believed to be the first known depiction of spun thread.

The sculpture belongs to the collection of Upper Paleolithic art at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, France.

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

Discovery & Location

The Venus of Lespugue was discovered in 1922, by the archaeologist René de Saint-Périer (1877-1950), in the Grotte des Rideaux, close to the village of Lespugue in Haute-Garonne near the Pyrenees. (No other prehistoric art was found in the cave.)

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Venus of Lespugue: Characteristics

The figure is one of many steatopygian venus figurines sculpted during the Gravettian culture (25,000 - 20,000 BC).

Carved out of mammoth tusk ivory, it measures approximately 15 cm in height, and possesses many of the characteristics typical of its class. For example:

In addition, below the buttocks, the artist has added a series of unusual engravings, which appear to depict a type of skirt made from strips of twisted fibers, topped with a fringe. No other Stone Age venus figurine - except for one of the Kostenki Venus figurines (Kostenki 1, figure 3) - has this type of decoration.

Dating

The Venus of Lespugue was attributed by Dr René de Saint-Périer to the Aurignacian, but scholars have now assigned it to the Gravettian. It is dated to around 23,000 BC.

Interpretation

As with the vast majority of all venuses of the Aurignacian and Gravettian period, the artist's obvious focus on the subject's female reproductive organs and gender characteristics, implies it might have been designed as a fertility symbol.

However, archaeologists remain unable to agree on a common interpretation of these statuettes. The latest interpretation comes from scientists keen to correct the historical gender bias shown, in their view, by archaeologists over the years. They claim that venus figurines were created by female sculptors as a type of "selfie".

Prehistoric Venus Statuettes

These small, obese, nude, female figurines form a special category of mobiliary art of the Upper Paleolithic.

Made out of ivory, soft stone like limestone, sandstone, serpentine or, even ceramic clay, they have been recovered from shelters and primal camps across Europe, from the Pyrenees to Lake Baikal - though not, strangely, from the Iberian Peninsula, the centre of so much paleolithic art and culture.

A few figurines - including the "Venus of Hohle Fels" (Germany), and the "Venus of Galgenberg" (Austria) - were carved during the Aurignacian era, but most were sculpted during the Gravettian period.

The most famous of these include: the "Venus of Dolni Vestonice" (Czech Republic), the "Venus of Willendorf" (Austria), the "Venus of Savignano" (Italy), the "Venus of Moravany" (Slovakia), and the "Grimaldi Venuses" (Italy).

References

(1) "Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times." Elizabeth Wayland Barber. (1994) W. W. Norton and Company, p. 44.
(2) Beck, Margaret, in Ratman, Alison E. (ed.), "Reading the Body: Representations and Remains in the Archaeological Record, 2000", University of Pennsylvania Press.
(3) De Saint-Périer R., 1924: "La Statuette féminine de Lespugue (Haute-Garonne)" (The Female Statuette of Lespugue) Bulletin de la Société préhistorique de France, 1924, tome 21, N. 3. pp. 81-84.
(4) Fagan, Brian M., Beck, Charlotte, "Venus Figurines", The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, 1996, Oxford University Press.

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