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Venus of Monpazier

Limonite quartz female carving
Gravettian sculpture: 23,000 BC

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Venus of Monpazier, French limonite figurine
Venus of Monpazier. Image from Musée d'Archéologie Nationale, Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Miniature Venus

The Venus of Monpazier, is a tiny prehistoric sculpture which was carved during the Gravettian culture of the Upper Paleolithic, around 23,000 BC.

It was discovered in 1970, in the French Dordogne, and is ranked among the prehistoric art in France.

The miniature figure is made of limonite quartz, a local rock, and belongs to the series of European carvings known as venus figurines - a style of mobiliary art which emerged across Europe during the middle of the Upper Paleolithic.

Like all these figurines, the Venus of Monpazier is depicted nude, with strongly defined and enlarged female genitalia.

Due to its bulging belly and protruding buttocks, it resembles two of its Dordogne contemporaries - the Venus of Sireuil and the Venus of Tursac - which are both part of the collection of Upper Paleolithic art, at the Musée des Antiquités Nationales in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

For more about the chronology of these stone carvings, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (540,000 BC).

Discovery & Dating

The Venus of Monpazier was recovered from the surface of a ploughed field by Monsieur Elisee Cerou, a jeweller from the nearby town of Monpazier, while digging for flints.

A large quantity of lithic assemblages from the Mousterian and Perigordian periods, along with artifacts from the Neolithic, were also found close to the site.

Investigations led to the figurine being assigned the same date in prehistory as the Venus of Laussel, the Venus of Tursac, the Venus of Sireuil, the Venus of Lespugue and the Venus of Brassempouy - that is, 23,000 BC.

Regrettably, during the investigations the Monpazier figurine was accidentally broken: its head was fractured, the body broke in half and a foot was smashed.

Fortunately, scientists managed to reconstruct it, with the help of photographs.

See: World's Oldest Art.

Venus of Monpazier: Characteristics

The Venus of Monpazier measures 56 mm in length, 16 mm in width, and 14 mm in thickness, which is small for a venus.

It is made out of limonite, a yellowish brown iron ore which is widely available in the area. The main colour of the object is toffee brown, with patches of yellow on the back of the head and legs, and on the right side of the chest, hip and thigh.

The tiny carving is a stylized rendering of a pregnant nude female with the usual venus combination of simplified and exaggerated features.

A steatopygous body tapers upwards to a small rounded head which has only slight indications of eyes and nose.

There is no neck and the arms are missing. The legs are quite short and roughly defined but tipped with feet - an unusual sight for a venus.

As normal, much more attention is paid to the venus's female organs. The breasts are heavy and drooping. The belly is full and thrust forward. The buttocks are even more pronounced and protruding than in the Tursac and Sireuil carvings.

But the most extraordinary feature is the exaggerated but carefully defined vulva, which reaches to her knees.

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Interpretation

On the face of it, the figure is almost a talisman for fecundity and fertility.

The specially carved vulva - the "gateway to life" - must be a key feature of the pregnant figure and its message of successful reproduction.

But who knows what Stone Age sculptors had in mind?

There are so many contradictions in paleolithic art that things are rarely what they seem.

For example, an interesting new study suggests that the figurines were intended to enhance the survival prospects of the hunting and gathering community by depicting the ideal reality of overnutrition.

During pregnancy and at other times, obesity helped to increase survival rates during episodes of severe food shortage.

Whatever the message, it cannot be a coincidence that these female carvings appear not long after the disappearance of Neanderthals. The latter may have been more creative than previously thought, but Neanderthal art does not compare well with that of modern humans.

List of Famous Venus Figurines

Here is a chronological list of some of the best-known female figurines from the Aurignacian and Gravettian periods of the Upper Paleolithic.

References

(1) "La statuette féminine de Monpazier (Dordogne)." (The Female Statuette of Monpazier) Clottes J., Cérou E., 1970: Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 1970, tome 67, N.2. pp.435-444.
(2) "Perspective: Upper Paleolithic Figurines Showing Women with Obesity may Represent Survival Symbols of Climatic Change." Richard J. Johnson, Miguel A Lanaspa, and John W. Fox. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2021 Jan; 29(1): 11–15.

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