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Gravettian Art & Culture

Type site, La Gravette
Tools, venus figurines, sculpture

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Venus of Willendorf, female fertility figure from the Gravettian period
Venus of Willendorf, one of the most famous venus figurines that proliferated across Europe during the Gravettian culture. Typically depicting obese, sometimes pregnant, usually nude females, these statuettes reflected the growing art of sculpture, made possible by new stone and bone tools. Image by MatthiasKabel. (CC BY 2.5)

What is Gravettian Culture?

In prehistoric art, the term 'Gravettian' describes the second archaeological industry or culture, to be developed by modern humans (known as Cro-Magnons) in Europe.

It followed the Aurignacian culture about 30,000 BC, shortly after the Neanderthals became extinct, and forms the second phase of the 'Upper Paleolithic Revolution'.

Archaeologists highlight two regional variants:

In Spain and France, the culture was succeeded by the Solutrean, while in Italy, the Balkans, and southern Russia it continued as the so-called Epigravettian.

Building upon the achievements of their Stone Age predecessors, Gravettian tool-makers and artists continued to innovate in areas such as tool-making, hunting, sculpture and painting, setting new standards of behavioural modernity.

Upper Paleolithic Timeline

Gravettian Tools

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Gravettian Sculpture

Gravettian innovation in the development of small tools, is likely linked to their most famous contribution to Stone Age culture - a form of prehistoric sculpture which spread across Europe from France to Siberia.

It consists of tiny portable carvings of obese nude females - known as venus figurines - which have become an iconic idiom of Upper Paleolithic art from both the western and eastern Gravettian, although stylistic differences exist between the two.

Famous examples include: the Venus of Willendorf (Austria), the Venus of Moravany (Slovakia), and the Mal'ta, Buret and Kostenki venuses.

Another masterpiece is the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (Czech Republic), a ceramic venus figurine dated to between 29,000 and 25,000 BC, which is the world's oldest piece of ceramic art.

Also from the site of Dolní Věstonice, is the extraordinary mammoth ivory sculpture of a woman's head, known as Portrait Head XV, dated to 25,000 BC, now in the Brno Museum.

In France, Gravettian mobiliary art is exemplified by the tiny Venus of Brassempouy (Landes, France).

Prehistoric relief sculpture is also seen for the first time during the Gravettian period. Two famous examples include: the salmon relief at Abri du Poisson and the Venus of Laussel (Venus with a Horn), both in the Dordogne.

Cave Art

Cave painting also blossomed during the Gravettian era, in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, most especially in southwestern France.

Highlights include: Pech Merle's Spotted Horses (Lot, France), the Gargas Cave hand stencils (Haute-Garonne, France), and the red ochre animal frieze at Cougnac Cave (Lot, France).

In addition, Gravettian cave painters made a significant contribution to the paintings at Altamira, in Cantabria, northern Spain.

Rock Engravings

Gravettian expertise in sharp tool technology led to greater refinement in rock engravings, in caves and outdoors.

See, for instance, the Cussac Cave engravings (Dordogne, France) featuring characteristic Gravettian assemblages of woolly mammoths, bison and horses, and the Roucadour Cave painted engravings of over 14 different animal species (Lot, France).

Recently, new examples of Gravettian rock art were found in several of the Aitzbitarte caves, in the Spanish Basque region.

The imagery consists largely of petroglyphs of bison, in which the animals' horns and legs are drawn in the Gravettian style, without using normal perspective.

Gravettian rock engravers also initiated several galleries of open air petroglyphs. See, for example, the rock art in the Coa Valley (28,000-22,000 BC) in northeastern Portugal.

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Famous Gravettian Artworks

Here is a short chronological list of the most famous items of Gravettian painting, sculpture and rock art.

For more about the chronology of the Stone Age, especially the development of portable sculpture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "Upper Paleolithic Hunting Tactics and Weapons in Western Europe". Straus, L.G. (1993). Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association. University of New Mexico. 4 (1): 83–93.
(2) "Ice Age Communities May Be Earliest Known Net Hunters". Pringle, H (1997). Science. 277 (5330): 1203–1204.
(3) "Venus Figurines". Brian M. Fagan, Charlotte Beck. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, 1996, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195076189 pp. 740–741
(4) "Redefining shared symbolic networks during the Gravettian in Western Europe: New data from the rock art findings in Aitzbitarte caves (Northern Spain)." Diego Garate, Olivia Rivero, Joseba Rios-Garaizar, Martín Arriolabengoa, Iñaki Intxaurbe, Sergio Salazar. PLOS ONE, 2020; 15 (10): e0240481.
(5) Pamela B. Vandiver, Olga Soffer, Bohuslav Klima and Jiři Svoboda, "The Origins of Ceramic Technology at Dolni Věstonice, Czechoslovakia", Science, New Series, 246, No. 4933 (November 24, 1989: pp. 1002–1008).

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