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Petersfels Venuses

Lalinde-Gonnersdorf female figures
Like Jet Venus of Engen: 13,000 BC

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Photos of four tiny Petersfels venuses
Four of the Venus figures from Petersfels (Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe). Image by Bildersturm. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Petersfels Venuses: Summary

The "Petersfels Venuses" are a collection of tiny venus figurines that were unearthed at the Petersfels archaeological site, near Engen in Germany, during the late 1920s.

The figures date to the era of Magdalenian culture, the final phase of Upper Paleolithic art, around 13,000 BC.

Most of the figures are carved from jet, a type of hard black coal (lignite); one or two, from reindeer antler or limestone.

The tallest of the group is known as the Venus of Engen ("Frauenidol von Engen"). It is very similar to its Swiss contemporary, the "Venus of Monruz-Neuchâtel", which was discovered across the border in Switzerland. Both are made from jet.

The Engen venus is now in the collection of prehistoric sculpture at the Stadtischen Museum in Engen. The others are on display in various museums like the Baden-Wurttemberg Landesmuseum, the Freiburg Archaeological Museum, and the Singen Museum.

Other Magdalenian venuses include the ivory "Venus of Pekarna" (12,500 BC) from the Czech Republic, and the "Venus of Eliseevichi" from Russia.

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

Location

The Petersfels site is situated in the narrow Brudertal valley leading from the Danube to a low pass in the Swabian Jura, and over to the River Rhine and Lake Constance.

It is one of the most significant Magdalenian sites in Central Europe, with a huge number of tools and other artifacts.

It was inhabited on a seasonal basis by reindeer hunters between 13,500 and 8,000 BC. At the time, the region was characterised by rich grassland, which supported an extremely rich fauna with more than ten types of herbivore, and three types of carnivore.

The cave provided a base for hunters who drove the reindeer herds into the Brudertal Valley, where it was easier to control and kill them. Reindeer were the dominant species but horses and small game were also hunted.

Several other Paleolithic camp sites are located nearby in southwest Germany and northern Switzerland, such as the Gnirshöhle, Schweizersbild and Kesslerloch.

Less than 120 km to the northeast of Petersfels, is the famous Hohle Fels Cave, site of the famous prehistoric sculpture known as the "Venus of Hohle Fels" (38,000 BC). Other famous items recovered from the region include the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BC), and the carvings from Vogelherd Cave (38,000 BC).

About 490 km due east are the Austrian sites of the iconic "Venus of Willendorf", and the 'dancing' "Venus of Galgenberg": both carved during the Gravettian period.

Discovery & Excavation

Petersfels Cave was first discovered and excavated during the period 1927-32, by Eduard Peters, a retired postman, and Volker Toepfer.

Peters' team recovered 1,500 kg (one and a half tons) of Paleolithic animal bones (reindeer, hare, horse, fox, in that order), more than 50,000 stone tools, and over 1,000 bone and antler tools.

Unfortunately, despite Peters' best efforts, not only were many valuable artifacts overlooked or accidentally disposed of, but also some important stratigraphic features were misinterpreted.

However, Peters did recover a serious quantity of paleolithic art including the Petersfels Venuses along with several other small-scale carvings.

Later, between 1974 and 1979, the site was re-excavated by archaeologist Gerd Albrecht, who recovered a large number of Stone Age artifacts from the shelter and from the debris of Peters' excavations.

They included burins, endscrapers, shouldered points, as well as Zinken and Cheddar points. A quantity of prehistoric art was also discovered, including:

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Petersfels Venus Figurines: Characteristics

Petersfels is best-known for its Stone Age mobiliary art, notably its collection of tiny and highly stylised venus figurines, made of jet lignite, reindeer bones/antlers, and limestone.

The Venus of Engen, the largest of the female carvings, is about 40 mm in height, while others measure between 15 mm and 30 mm (about 1 inch) tall.

All these items are stylized depictions of nude women, and were largely made as brooches or pendants.

They belong to the so-called "Lalinde-Gonnersdorf" type of venus carving - named initially after the limestone engravings in the Gare de Couze.

These figurines are sometimes referred to as "femmes sans tete" (females with no heads) and are characterized by semi-abstract bodies, with elongated torsos, enlarged buttocks and undefined breasts.

Characteristic of the late Magdalenian, they appear most often in the form of statuettes, but are also found in engravings and relief sculpture on cave walls and ceilings.

They appear in several sites in France (Fontales, Lalinde), Belgium (Megarnie), Germany (Andernach, Gonnersdorf, Nebra, Oelknitz, Petersfels), Italy (Grotta Romanelli), Moravia (Pekarna), Poland (Wilczyce), and Ukraine (Mezin, Meziric).

Famous Venuses

Other famous female figurines from Europe, dating to the Upper Paleolithic, include the following:

References

(1) Peters, E., 1930: Die altsteinzeitliche Kulturstätte Petersfels Augsburg, B. Fiolser, 1930.
(2) Mauser, P., 1968: Finds of the Paleolithic (Petersfels near Bittelbrunn, Ldkrs. Konstanz), Archaeological News from Baden, Vol. 1 (1968).
(3) Weniger, G., 1987: Magdalenian settlement and subsistence in south-west Germany. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 53, 293-307.
(4) Verena Nübling. Die Venusstatuetten vom Petersfels. Denkmalpflege in Baden-Württemberg, Nachrichtenblatt des Landesdenkmalamtes, (3), S. 129-130, 1999.

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