A Venus figurine is any Upper Paleolithic statuette portraying a woman, usually carved in the round. Most have been unearthed in Europe, but others have been found as far away as Siberia, and distributed across much of Eurasia, although with many gaps where no figurines were found, such as the Mediterranean outside Italy.
Most date from the Gravettian period (26,000–21,000 years ago). However, findings are not limited to this period; for example, the Venus of Hohle Fels dates back at least 35,000 years to the Aurignacian era, and the Venus of Monruz dates back about 11,000 years to the Magdalenian. Such figurines were carved from soft stone (such as steatite, calcite or limestone), bone or ivory, or formed of clay and fired. The latter are among the oldest ceramics known to historians. In total, some 144 such figurines are known; virtually all of modest size, between about 3 cm and 40 cm in height. These figurines are recognized as some of the earliest works of prehistoric art.
Most have small heads, wide hips, and legs that taper to a point. Arms and feet are often absent, and the head is usually small and faceless. Various figurines exaggerate the abdomen, hips, breasts, thighs, or female anatomy, although many found examples do not reflect these typical characteristics. Depictions of hairstyles can be detailed, and especially in Siberian examples, clothing or tattoos may be indicated.
The original cultural meaning and purpose of these artifacts is not known. It has frequently been suggested that they may have served a ritual or symbolic function. There are widely varying and speculative interpretations of their use or meaning: they have been seen as religious figures, an expression of health and fertility, grandmother goddesses or as self-depictions by female artists.
History of DiscoveryEdit
Vénus impudique, which was the figurine that gave the whole category its name, was the first Paleolithic sculptural representation of a woman discovered in modern times. It was found in 1864 by Paul Hurault, 8th Marquis de Vibraye at the Laugerie-Basse archaeological site in the Vézère valley. This valley is one of the many important Stone Age sites in and around the commune of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in Dordogne, southwestern France. The figurines were mostly discovered in settlement contexts, both in open-air sites and caves. The Magdalenian Venus from Laugerie-Basse is headless, footless, armless, and a strongly emphasized female reproductive system.
Four years later, Salomon Reinach published an article about a group of soapstone figurines from the caves of Balzi Rossi. The famous Venus of Willendorf was excavated in 1908 from a loess deposit in the Danube valley located in Austria. Since then, hundreds of similar figurines have been discovered from the Pyrenees Mountains to the plains of Siberia. They are collectively described as "Venus figurines" in reference to the Roman goddess of beauty Venus. This decision was made because prehistorians of the early 20th century assumed the figurines represented an ancient ideal of beauty.
In September 2008, archaeologists from the University of Tübingen discovered a 6 cm figurine woman carved from a mammoth's tusk. This figurine was later called the Venus of Hohle Fels and can be dated to at least 35,000 years ago. It represented the earliest known sculpture of this type and the earliest known work of figurative art. 
In Gagarino, Russia, seven Venus figurines were found in a hut and have been interpreted as apotropaic amulets used by the occupants of the dwelling. Similarly, in Mal'ta, near Lake Baikal, figurines were also found in the huts of inhabitants.The figurines may have been publicly viewed as part of a religious practice. An image of excess weight may have symbolized a yearning for plenty and security.
The majority of Venus figurines are depictions of women, and follow artistic conventions of the times. Most of the figurines display the same body shape with the widest point at the abdomen and the female reproductive organs exaggerated. Oftentimes other details, such as the head and limbs, are neglected or absent which leads the figure to be abstracted to the point of simplicity. The heads are often of relatively small size and devoid of detail. Some may represent pregnant women, while others show no indication of pregnancy. It has been suggested that because of the way these figures are depicted, such as the large breasts and lack of feet and faces, these statues were made by women looking at their own bodies, as the perspective of their bodies they would have had mirrors that of the figurines, and they likely did not have access to mirrors.
The Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Laussel bear traces of having been externally covered in red ochre. The significance of this is not clear, but is traditionally assumed to be religious or ritual in nature. Some human bodies from the Paleolithic era were found similarly covered, so it is assumed this color had a very significant meaning in their culture even though we do not know what.
All generally accepted Paleolithic female figurines are from the Upper Palaeolithic. Although they were originally mostly considered part of the Aurignacian culture, the majority are now associated with the Gravettian and Solutrean cultures. In these periods, the more rotund figurines are predominant. Within the Magdalenian cultures, the forms become finer with more detail and the stylization on said figures started to become similar within areas of close contact.
There have been many differing interpretations of the figurines since their discovery one of which comes from Helen Benigin. In her book, Emergence of the Goddess, she argues that the consistency in design of these featureless, large-breasted, often pregnant figures throughout a wide region and over a long period of time suggests they represent an archetype of a female Supreme Creator. Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age inhabitants likely connected women as creators innately tied to the cycles of nature. Through this, it was believed that women's birth and menstrual cycles aligned with lunar cycles and tides.
The Name VenusEdit
The expression Venus was first used in the mid-nineteenth century by the Marquis de Vibraye, who discovered an ivory figurine and named it La Vénus impudique or Venus Impudica ("immodest Venus"). The Marquis then contrasted the ivory figurine to the Aphrodite Of Knidos, a Greco-Roman sculpture depicting Venus covering her naked body with both her hands. 
The use of the name is metaphorical as there is no link between the ancient figurines and the Roman goddess Venus, although they have been interpreted as representations of a primordial female goddess. The term has been criticized for being a reflection of Western ideas rather than reflecting the beliefs of the sculptures' original owners, but the original names are unknown as well so the term Venus has persisted.
Like many prehistoric artifacts, the exact cultural meaning of these figures may never be known. Archaeologists speculate, however, that they may be symbolic of security and success, fertility, or a mother goddess. The female figures are a part of Upper Paleolithic art, specifically the category of Paleolithic art known as portable art
Later female figurines and continuityEdit
Some scholars and popular theorists suggest a direct continuity between the Paleolithic female figurines and later examples of female depictions in art pieces from the Neolithic or even the Bronze Age. Such views have been contested on numerous grounds, not least the general absence of such depictions during the intervening Mesolithic.
A female figurine which has 'no practical use and is portable' and has the common elements of a Venus figurine (a strong accent or exaggeration of female sex linked traits, and the lack of complete lower limbs) may be considered to be a Venus figurine, even if archaeological evidence suggests it was produced after the main Paleolithic period. Some figurines matching this definition originate from the Neolithic era and into the Bronze Age. The period and location in which a figurine was produced helps guide archaeologists to reach conclusions as to whether the art piece found can be defined as a Venus figurine or not. For example, ceramic figurines from the late ceramic Neolithic may be accepted as Venus figurines, while stone figurines from later periods are not. This is a matter of ongoing debate given the strong similarity between many figurines from the Paleolithic, Neolithic and beyond. A reworked endocast of a brachiopod from around 6000 BC in Norway has been identified as a late Venus figurine.
This means that a given female figurine may or may not be classified as a Venus figure by any given archaeologist, regardless of its date, though most archaeologists disqualify figurines which date later than the Paleolithic, even though their purpose could have been the same. For instance, the Mehrgarh figurine has all of the common characteristics of a Venus stone figurine, including large breasts and incomplete legs, however it came from what is now Pakistan and also dates to 3000 BCE, which lies after the beginning of the Bronze Age.
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