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Venus of Monruz-Neuchâtel

Tiny jet lignite female carving
Magdalenian sculpture: 10,000 BC

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Photo of the tiny Venus of Monruz-Neuchâtel, French black jet figurine
Venus of Monruz-Neuchâtel. Image by Y. André. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Summary

The Venus of Monruz-Neuchâtel is one of the smallest examples of prehistoric sculpture in the archaeological record. Carved out of black jet, this stylized item of Upper Paleolithic art was designed as a pendant in the shape of a stylized female body.

It was made during the final phase of Magdalenian art, a period noted for its cave painting rather than its mobiliary art, although it also witnessed the creation of other objects like the Venus of Eliseevichi (Russia, 13,000 BC) and the Petersfels Venuses (13,000 BC) from across the border in Germany.

Indeed, the Monruz-Neuchâtel venus looks very similar to the Venus of Engen, the largest of the venus figurines excavated from Petersfels.

For the evolution and chronology of ancient sculpture in Europe, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (540,000 BC).

Discovery

The Venus of Monruz-Neuchâtel (also called The Lady of Monruz) was discovered on July 26, 1990, at Monruz (La Coudre), in the municipality of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

It was recovered from the debris of a Magdalenian hunters' camp, which was buried under five metres of clay, sand, and gravel.

It was found along with three tiny earrings made of jet, as well as the remains of flint tools, animal bones (including those of 45 horses, reindeer, various hares and fish) and traces of red ochre.

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Dating Issue

The archaeological site is located on the north-western margin of Lake Neuchâtel, at the foot of the Jura mountains.

It lies one kilometre to the northeast of a second hunters' camp, known as Hauterive-Champréveyres.

The exchange of blades between Monruz and Hauterive-Champréveyres indicates they were contemporaneous.

But deposits at Hauterive-Champréveyres have been AMS-dated to 11,000 BC, making it two thousand years younger than the date (13,000 BC) given by the archaeological museum of Neuchâtel for the Venus of M-N (Museum reference: N° inv. NE-MZ 900004).

What's more, the Venus of M-N shows an obvious resemblance to the Engen figurine (also made of jet lignite) unearthed at the Petersfels Cave, 130 km away in south-western Germany, which is dated to 13,000 BC.

It is so similar it could have been carved by the same artist. In addition, there are strong resemblances between other decorative objects found at Petersfels and Monruz.

Venus of Monruz: Characteristics

The Venus of Monruz-Neuchâtel is 1.6 cm in height, and carved out of jet, a hard type of coal, but easily worked and polished.

Made to be worn around the neck, perhaps with the three jet earrings found at the same site, the venus is extremely stylized. It consists simply of a few curves suggesting the shape of a kneeling or seated woman.

It is commonly ascribed to the "Lalinde-Gonnersdorf" style of venus.

The venus's semi-abstract form is surprisingly modern, being reminiscent of abstract sculpture by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) and Jean Arp (1886-1966).

As explained above, different estimates exist as to when the Venus of Monruz was created, but it is safe to assume that it was carved between 13,000 and 10,000 BC, which makes it the oldest art in Switzerland.

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Other Mobiliary Art

Unique items of prehistoric art from the Magdalenian period include:

Female Venus Carvings

The earliest art of this type was created during the Aurignacian culture, as exemplified by the Venus of Hohle Fels (Germany, 38,000 BC).

The figurines later proliferated across Europe during the Gravettian era. Examples include:

Anthropologists are still unsure as to the purpose of these items of paleolithic culture, although many prehistorians believe they were associated with fertility or "increase" ceremonies, not least because many of them have deliberately exaggerated female characteristics.

References

"Venus of Monruz." Editors: Jesse Russell, Ronald Cohn. 2012. Google Books.

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