Stone Age ivory figurine, Slovakia
Gravettian sculpture: 21,000 BC
The Venus of Moravany is a small prehistoric sculpture which was discovered in Slovakia during the early part of the 20th century.
It belongs to the series of venus figurines produced throughout Europe during the period between 30,000 and 20,000 BC.
Considered to be the oldest art ever found in Slovakia, its origins as well as those of Paleolithic settlement where it was found are shrouded in historical uncertainty.
Nevertheless, it is officially attributed to the Willendorf-Kostenkian phase of the late Gravettian culture, and dates to about 21,000 BC.
Today, a copy of the venus is a key item of Upper Paleolithic art in the Slovak National Museum, while the original is believed to be stored in the Slovak National Bank.
The replica is put on public display from time to time at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Institute of Archaeology, in Nitra, the Bratislava Castle Museum and the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
To see how the figurine fits into the evolution of Stone Age sculpture, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (540,000 BC).
The Venus of Moravany was discovered in 1938 by Štefan Hulman-Petrech, when ploughing a field in Podkovica near the village of Moravany nad Váhom, not far from the well-known spa town of Piešťany in western Slovakia.
The Paleolithic archaeological site at Moravany nad Váhom had been known for at least two centuries, but was reactivated in 1931 by Václav Vlk, the administrator of the Piešťany Spa, who excavated a substantial amount of Paleolithic material from the vicinity.
The newly discovered figurine was sent for examination to the world-famous paleoarchaeologist Abbe Breuil, in Paris.
Here, the antiquity of the Venus was confirmed, although it wasn't until 1967 that it was actually returned to the Slovakia authorities, thanks in part to the efforts of Professor Lothar Zotz, the somewhat unreliable German archaeologist who had been in charge of the excavations at Moravany during the war.
The carving stands 7.6 centimetres in height and is made out of mammoth tusk ivory.
Like most of the venus figurines of the period, the Venus of Moravany is a stylized sculpture of a nude female whose female characteristics are exaggerated while the rest of her body is given scant attention.
Thus, the figure is headless and without proper arms, or any feet. These body parts are not important to the composition.
What is important, are her female features.
She has unusually large and pendulous breasts, a drooping, obese belly, and ample well-defined buttocks, supported by large haunches.
Her belly button and vulva are both carefully defined.
The Moravany Venus is one of many similar items of prehistoric art produced by modern man during the Gravettian.
Carved out of serpentine, limonite, calcite, black jet, limestone quartz, bone, ivory, wood, or moulded and clay-fired, their meaning remains unclear to this day.
It must be associated with an issue that affected people across Europe, and it must explain the heavy focus on the figure's female characteristics.
The most common explanation is that the venuses are fertility symbols of some description, that celebrate reproduction and abundance.
Another theory is that they championed over-eating and obesity to boost survival when food was short.
Yet another theory proposes they were created by female artists as a form of self-representation.
Whatever the meaning of this particular type of mobiliary art, anthropologists acknowledge that the carving of a human figure represents an important stage in the evolution of paleolithic art, and is a major advance in the cultural development of modern man.
Here is a brief chronological list of the most famous venuses.
(1) "Venus of Moraveny." Pavel Dvořák. 2004. Published by the RAK, Budmerice. ISBN 80-85501-31-7.
(2) "Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines and Interpretations of Prehistoric Gender Representations." Kaylea R. Vandewettering. Pure Insights. Volume 4. Article 7.