Why the 30,000-Year-Old Figurine Venus of Willendorf Still Fascinates

Venus of Willendorf limestone statuette.

Venus of Willendorf, also called Woman of Willendorf or Nude Woman, is an Upper Paleolithic female figurine and is perhaps the most familiar of some 40 small portable human figures. (Image: via Wikipedia)

There are several relics of historical importance. One of these is the intricately designed statuette known as the Venus of Willendorf. While other famous Venus figurines have survived the test of time, this one is especially intriguing.

The Venus of Willendorf, also called Woman of Willendorf or Nude Woman, is an Upper Paleolithic female figurine and is perhaps the most familiar of some 40 small portable human figures (mostly female) that had been found intact or nearly so by the early 21st century. (Roughly 80 more exist as fragments or partial figures.)

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These ancient-era figurines were carved from various materials like stones, clay, ivory, and bone. These Venus figurines are noted for their voluptuous design styles. The Venus of Willendorf is a limestone statuette without a face that has a female body with oversized reproductive organs. 

It was uncovered by excavations conducted by archaeologists Josef Szombathy, Hugo Obermaier, and Josef Bayer at a Paleolithic site near Willendorf, a village in Lower Austria in 1908. Researchers believe it dates back 20,000-30,000 years. Initially, the archaeologists thought it was created in 10,000 BCE. Later, researchers revised the origin to be around 20,000 BCE. Again, in 1990 an analysis of the rock layer was done, and the date was changed to 30,000 BCE.

A symbol of fertility, the figurine can be seen in the Natural History Museum in Vienna and was named after the village of Willendorf, where it was found. It is just 4.4-inch tall and made of limestone, and there are tinges of red ochre.

The Venus of Willendorf limestone statuette.
The Venus of Willendorf is a limestone statuette without a face and has a female body with oversized reproductive organs. (Image: via Wikipedia)

The Venus of Willendorf was created before humans learned to write

While it is not as ancient as the Venus of Hohle Fels, the Venus of Willendorf is older than the Venus of Monruz. The fact is these figurines were created much before humans learned to write. So historians have struggled to interpret their cultural context. The possible explanations include ancient pornography and self-depictions; however, some of these interpretations made in the early 19th century are now discounted. Anthropologists believed male sculptors made such Venus figurines for a long time, but that view was challenged later. 

A noted retired anthropologist, Dr. Catherine McCoid, who studied such figurines extensively in her career, said it is owing to the chauvinistic society most Europeans have been brought up in. However, things have changed a lot. She said: “Those people were living in truly egalitarian societies. They were hunter-gatherers, they lived in a communal sharing society. Women were equal.”

Natural History Museum in Vienna.
The figurine can be seen in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. (Image: via Wikipedia)

Perhaps sculpted by women

So it is possible that some, if not all, of these figurines, were sculpted by women. Mirrors had not been invented in those days, so such women may have made the figurines while looking down at their figures. This led to the creation of figurines like Venus of Willendorf with exaggerated breasts and abdomen. McCoid thinks women possibly used these figures to help other women during varying stages of pregnancy. It is possible that more such figurines were made, but natural disasters ravaged them. 

In a recent development, a team of researchers at the University of Vienna has concluded the figurine has an Italian origin. They used high-resolution tomographic images. Before the University of Vienna carried out this study, this artwork was assessed externally. The tomographic data shows this stone has an uneven internal structure and layers of sediment having varying sizes and densities. It also contains limonites and small shells.

The research team analyzed thousands of grains using advanced image processing programs. They found the samples within a 200 km radius of their place of discovery did not show any match. They finally found a match with the sample collected from northern Italy. However, the researchers think the rock may also have been sourced from eastern Ukraine — which is about 1,600 km from Willendorf.

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