Oolitic limestone statuette
Gravettian sculpture: 28,000 BC
It is also one of the oldest. Recent analysis now dates it to between 28,800 and 27,200 BC, making it the oldest art found in Austria, alongside its sister figurine the Venus of Galgenberg (28,000 BC).
But neither compares in age with the German figurine known as the Venus of Hohle Fels (38,000 BC), which is the oldest carving of a female figure, known to archaeology.
The Venus of Willendorf is made from oolitic limestone, and is one of three statuettes recovered from Stone Age sites at Willendorf in Lower Austria.
The carving was discovered in 1908, during investigations of Gravettian settlements near Krems, led by Josef Szombathy. The sculpture was actually found by Johann Veran, one of the workers.
The Venus of Willendorf is a highly stylized carving of a nude female, which measures exactly 11 cm in height and about 4 cm in width.
It is made from yellowish oolitic limestone - a rock which is completely absent in the region - and shows traces of red ochre.
It presents the typical venus combination of simplified and exaggerated features.
There is no facial detail as the head is covered with a braided pattern created by a mixture of transversal scratches and concentric lines.
Little attention is paid to the legs below the knee, and the feet are missing.
What dominates the sculpture are the figure's enormous rounded breasts, and the bulging mass of body fat around its middle.
There is so much fat that the buttocks hardly protrude, although the belly button and vulva are clearly marked.
The heavy torso is supported by thick thighs tapering to shortened calves.
In short, the Venus of Willendorf presents the classic venus shape - a faceless female with an obese body and exaggerated reproductive organs.
In Willendorf's case, the Gravettian artist has succeeded in creating an exceptionally realistic representation of a severely obese woman, with little or no caricature.
The Venus of Willendorf has been classified as belonging to to the Gravettian culture of the Upper Paleolithic era - the final period of the old Stone Age, and is dated to approximately 28,000 BC.
Since it was excavated from archaeological layers dating back to about 41,000 BC, it sheds valuable light on the habits and movements of early modern humans arriving in Europe.
What was the origin of the oolitic limestone that was used to create the Venus of Willendorf?
Experts tracked down two possible sources: one was Izium in the Ukraine, about 2,500 km away; another was near Lake Garda in the Italian Alps, about 730 km distant.
Recent tests showed that the limestone at Sega di Ala near Lake Garda was almost indistinguishable from the material used in the Venus of Willendorf.
Sega di Ala is only a few kilometres from the Fumane Cave, a prehistoric limestone cave near Lake Garda, which shows evidence of Mousterian, Aurignacian and Gravettian occupations from 60,000 to 25,000 BC.
The cave is the source of some of the oldest figurative paintings in Europe.
What does all this signify concerning the life and mobility of Gravettian people?
Basically, that Gravettian people must have crossed the Danube in Lower Austria, where the river, like today, was considerably broader than upstream in Germany.
It also suggests considerable mobility of people throughout the region during the early Gravettian.
The most compelling aspect of the Willendof statuette is its stunning depiction of obesity.
Despite the likely scarcity of food and thus the absence of overweight females, the artist must have worked from a model.
If so, her unusual size, might be the reason she was sculpted - her body shape might have been worth celebrating in stone. After all, obesity is still the best protection against starvation.
Of course, this doesn't explain the heavy focus on female reproduction, which surely has connections with abundance and fertility.
Despite the discovery of hundreds of different Venus figurines from all over Europe, archaeologists and anthropologists are no nearer to finding an answer to their meaning and significance.
These small female figurines form a special category of mobiliary art of the Upper Paleolithic. In addition to the Venus of Willendorf, they include the following figurines:
(1) "The microstructure and origin of the Venus of Willendorf". Weber, G.W.; Lukeneder, A.; Harzhauser, M. (February 28, 2022). Scientific Reports. Nature. 12 (2926): 2926.
(2) "Early modern human settlement of Europe north of the alps occurred 43,500 years ago in a cold steppe-type environment." Nigst PR, et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2014; 111:14394–14399.
(3) "The time of the Willendorf figurines and new results of palaeolithic research in lower Austria." Antl-Weiser W. Anthropologie. 2009; XLVII:131–141.