A Gravette from Willendorf

gravette willendorfgravette katzbach willendorf

A Gravettian point, found early in the 20th century at Willendorf I or II, a site located near Aggsbach in the Wachau, a part of the Danube valley, about 80 km west of Vienna.

After the discovery of a rich Paleolithic in France, enthusiastic amateurs in Lower-Austria looked for similar sites. First clues for a Paleolithic settlement at the small village of Willendorf came from the discovery of “diluvial” bones and stone artifacts at the Brunner Brickyard (later Grossensteiner, and Merkel Brickyard). In late 1883, Ferdinand Brun reports the discovery of an artifact bearing horizon, belonging to the “Mammoth period” to the Natural History Museum in Vienna. This site will later be renamed as Willendorf I.

Josef Szombathy is the first professional archaeologist to visit the site on December 5th, 1883. Under his supervision Brun conducts small excavations throughout 1884; this is followed by a first publication (Szombathy, 1884).  The continuing exploitation of loess by the brickyard destroys the site of Willendorf I, but in 1889 Brun reports the discovery of animal bones and lithic remains in the Ebner Brickyard (Willendorf II).

Only limited work took place in the next years, small soundings were made by Fischer and Much. Several small publications described various collections from the site. Probably the most interesting is a report by Woldrich (1893) about the faunal remains that also described the Willendorf 1 human femoral shaft.

Systematic excavations were renewed on occasion of the building of the new railway line between Krems and Grein, from 1908 onwards. The excavations were led by Josef Szombathy (at the time director of the Anthropology Department of the Natural History Museum Vienna), but the local supervision was in the hands of Josef Bayer and Hugo Obermaier. For their time, these excavations were of a remarkable accuracy compared with contemporaneous diggings (For example at Laussel).

Five new sites were discovered westwards along the new railway line, numbered Willendorf III-VII. No excavation has been undertaken at any of these, the scientific work concentrated on Willendorf II.  At Willendorf II Josef Bayer and Hugo Obermaier uncovered 9 Palaeolithic layers. They concentrated on the rich upper levels, but during several visits of Szombathy, deep soundings were also made. At Willendorf II/2 (41 k.a BP) only a limited number of non-diagnostic upper Palaeolithic artifacts were found. Willendorf II/3 is clearly a very early Aurignacian (38 k.a BP) and Willendorf 2/4 (31 k.a BP) a classical Aurignacian. The Gravettian / Pavlovian begins with layer 5 (about 30, 5 k.a BP) and the sequence ends with a Willendorf-Kostienkian at 25 k.a. BP (Layer 9). After just a few days of work at Willendorf II, on August 7th, 1908 the Italian worker Josef Veran discovered a small statue, underneath Layer 9: the famous “Venus of Willendorf”. This statue is one of the rare securely dated Palaeolithic “Venuses” in Middle-West Europe.

The excavations continued with interruptions until the start of World War I, and in 1926 Josef Bayer started a smaller campaign where the “Venus II” was found in layer 9.

Conflicts between the three excavators about the question, who found the Venus figurine and who was in charge at the excavation, prevented a final publication of the results.

In 1955, Fritz Felgenhauer re-excavated parts of the site to clarify the stratigraphy, in preparation for his monumental monograph of the site (Felgenhauer, 1955). Haesaerts and his colleagues undertook two section cleaning campaigns, to collect C-14 and sedimentological samples in 1981 and 1993. They correlated the strata with the regional and European loess stratigraphy and found astonishing early C-14 dates for the whole sequence.

During the last years several trenches of Willendorf II were reopened and the publication of the results is eagerly awaited. While Ph Nigst published his thesis in 2012, he still used C-14 dates from the 1990ies. His new data  substantiate the assumption that the lithic inventory at Willendorf II-AH 2 is Szeletian. Anyhow it would be of eminent interest if Willendorf II/3 is really the oldest Aurignacian, and if Willendorf II/5 is really the oldest Gravettian in Middle Europe.

Suggested Readings:




About the venus figurines:


The Wachau is a World Heritage Site:


The artifact comes from  old Excavations at the beginning of the 20th century (most probably Willendorf I; before 1908):


New Excavations at Willendorf in 2011, a photo taken during a short visit :


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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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