Circle of the Green » History and Research » The Venus of Willendorf

The most famous early image of a human, a woman, is the so-called Venus of Willendorf, found in 1908 by the archaeologist Josef Szombathy in an Aurignacian loess deposit near the town of Willendorf in Austria and now in the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The statuette was carved from a particular type of oolitic limestone not found in the region and so must have been brought to the area from another location. It may well be the case that the carving, which was presumably done with flint tools, was not done locally.

When first discovered the Venus of Willendorf was thought to date to approximately 15,000 to 10,000 BCE, or more or less to the same period as the cave paintings at Lascaux in France. In the 1970s the date was revised back to 25,000-20,000 BCE, and then in the 1980s it was revised again to c. 30,000-25,000 BCE A study published in 1990 of the stratigraphic sequence of the nine superimposed archaeological layers comprising the Willendorf deposit, however, now indicates a date for the Venus of Willendorf of around 24,000-22,000 BCE (26-24,000 BP).

Her great age and exaggerated female forms have established the Venus of Willendorf as an icon of prehistoric art. As the discipline of art history underwent a paradigm shift during the 1960s away from examples that were characteristic of an age to objects that represented the highest artistic accomplishments of the age, the unique and extraordinary Venus of Willendorf achieved a singular status.

Although she was already being included in books devoted to Stone Age art published in the 1920s, it is not until the 1960s that the statuette begins to appear in the introductory art history textbooks where she quickly displaced other previously used examples of Palaeolithic art. Being both female and nude, she fitted perfectly into the patriarchal construction of the history of art. As the earliest known representation, she became the 'first woman', acquiring an Ur-Eve identity that focused suitably, from a patriarchal point of view, on the fascinating reality of the female body. She stands as a sexually-charged embodiment of fertility; the woman from which all women descend.

© Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe
Images of Women in Ancient Art

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