The Gagarino Venus

The Venus of Gagarino shown here is an excellent cast from the Kirchhoff collection (University of Göttingen)

Gagarino is located on a loess terrace on the northern margin of a ravine on the right bank of the Don River. Here peasants discovered a house pit while excavating a silo trench. Unfortunately, the trench cut through the centre of the house pit along its major axis and presumably destroyed the hearth and entrance. Zamiatinine who excavated the Gagarino site during 1926 – 1929, found a house pit roughly oval in outline about 5.5 meters long and 4.5 meters wide. The floor was located 40 to 60 cm below the occupational surface. The walls of the pit were lined with the long bones of rhinoceros and mammoth, including the tusks and lower jaws of the latter, as well as with sandstone slabs. The wealth of material remains found in this one house pit is seen in the recorded finds of some six hundred flint implements. Artifacts of bone as well as five Venus figurines completed the roster of non-lithic material. The site is dated to 22 000 ago.

Gagarino is one of the large sites in the Don region and the adjacent Eastern European plain that were repeatedly inhabited by hunter-gatherers during the late Gravettian (“Willendorf-Kostenki” Culture).  Similar habitation structures with female figurines have been detected at Kostenki, Avdeevo, Chotylevo 2, and several other sites. The archeological context clearly assigns these figurines to the domestic space.

While some of the Gagarino figures strongly resemble the Willendorf Venus, the figure displayed here (the original is made of ivory, Length: 6,9 cm), found in 1927 has a more “tall” aspect .  The legs and the upper torso are elongated. The maximum width of the figurine occurs at the upper portion of the pelvis.

Interestingly the Collector Kirchhoff (University of Göttingen) assigned the cast of this figurine to the Avdeevo site were  an almost identical Venus was found, indicating a strong unifying iconography of the late Gravettian in the Don region. Gvozdover (1989b) has noted the presence of upper body decorations on a large number of the Kostenki and Avdeevo figurines in the form of linear wedge-shaped notching with staggered spacing or checkwork and suggested that they might be elements of clothing. Olga Soffer and coworkers found that:” Detailed studies of a series of figurines indicate the presence of at least three types of dressed female depictions. These include several types of headgear, various body bandeaux, and at least one type of skirt”. A full description of these features can be found in the original publication:  (

Venus figurines is a term for a number of statuettes from the upper Paleolithic of women portrayed with similar physical attributes mostly found in Europe, but with finds as far east as Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, extending their distribution to much of Eurasia, from the Pyrenees to Lake Baikal. These figurines were carved from soft stone, bone or ivory, or formed of clay and fired. The latter are among the oldest ceramics, were found in southern Moravia and lower Austria and are about 27-29 k.a. old. In total, over a hundred such figurines are known; virtually all of modest size, between 4 cm and 25 cm in height. They are some of the earliest works of prehistoric art.

The majority of the Venus figurines appear to be depictions of females that follow certain artistic conventions, on the lines of schematization and stylization. Most of them are roughly lozenge shaped, with two tapering terminals at top (head) and bottom (legs) and the widest point in the middle (hips/belly). In some examples, certain parts of the human anatomy are exaggerated: abdomen, hips, breasts, thighs, and vulva. In contrast, other anatomical details are neglected or absent, especially arms and feet. The heads are often of relatively small size and devoid of detail. Some may represent pregnant women, while others show no such signs. Their distribution contrasts sharply with the scarcity of unambiguous depictions of Paleolithic males and humans of unknown sex who are depicted either naked (in the case of unambiguous males) or lacking any marking.

Most of them date to the Gravettian period and Willenorf-Kostenkien, but there are a number of early examples from the preceding Aurignacian, including the Venus of Hohle Fels (Baden Würtenberg, Germany), and the statuette of a dancing woman at Krems (Austria), dated to more than 30000 years ago, and late examples of the Magdalenian period such as the multiple Venuses from the Petersfels near the Lake Constance, aged about 13000 years.

The meaning of the „Venus Figurines“ has been debated since the first discovery of such a figurine in the 19th century. The first “Venus” was discovered in 1864 by the Marquis de Vibraye, at Laugerie-Basse (Vezere valley; Dordogne, France).  Vibraye named his find the “Vénus impudique” (Immodest Venus), a knowing contrast to the “modest” Venus Pudica Hellenistic type, the most famous of which is the Medici Venus. The ca. 15000 years old “Venus” from Laugerie-Basse is headless, footless, and armless but with a strongly incised vaginal opening, which shocked the contemporaneous civil audience, familiarized to naked women in art only in the context of mythological scenes. It would be worthwhile to reflect the different sentiments that were provoked in the 19th century public compared with our perception, which helps us to understand how different mentalities bias the interpretation and reception of the Venus figurines up to now.

The Venus impudique (C: Musée de l’Homme )

No item of Upper Paleolithic material culture has received as much attention, from amateurs and professionals alike, as depictions of humans. This attention has, by and large, been directed to certain features common to many of them, namely, the emotionally charged primary and secondary sexual characteristics—vulvae, breasts, stomachs, and buttocks . This selective focus on just a few features, has led to a great variety of conflicting unitary explanations for the Venus figurines. These interpretations are often based on little argument or fact. They range from seeing the depictions as “fertility” symbols or “mother goddesses,” paleoerotica, gynecological primers, and self-portraiture to suggestions that they were signifiers of widespread social ties. Other scholars have raised serious doubts to such explanations, pointing to their selectivity, lack of attention to context, uncontrolled chronologies, and unjustified assumptions.

Regarding, that it is almost impossible to reconstruct more than fragments of the ideology and beliefs of people that lived 30-20000 years ago, a middle ranged theoretical approach, which has always take into account the lifestyle of  the hunter-gatherers, the circumstances of the discoveries and the concrete archaeological context of the findings should achieve the most explanatory power. For a better understanding, it is important to address and challenge some of the most popular theories from the last 150 years:

  • The first interpretations during the 19th century were biased by the fact that Prehistory had to be establishished as an academic discipline. The leading Prehistorians of their time had to proof the enormous age of their findings which directly contradicted to the biblical narrative of a world that was suggested to be only 6000 years old. It was not by chance that these scientists were strictly anticlerical and against every religious interpretation. In fact they believed, that the “savages” of the Paleolithic were unable for religious sentiments and therefore preferred to interpret the Venus figurines either as “l`art pour l`lart” or as realistic depictions of the actual physical properties of Paleolithic women, when they noted that the high amount of fat around the buttocks (steatopygia) of some of the figurines resembled the physicalness of contemporaneous Khoisan woman of southern Africa. While the “l`art pour l`lart” theory was clearly primed by the ideology of the first modern artists in the late 19th century (Realists, Impressionists), the second theory was the reflection of contemporaneous racialist ideas during the high times of European Imperialism. In 1938 it was demonstrated that that true steatopygia is in fact rarely represented in living humans, but ironically this had the consequence of only strengthening this idea that the enormous hips and breasts of female figures had to be symbolic. When the fascination of male scholars with such attributes fused with magic-religious, ethnographic, and even Freudian ideas, a host of analogical possibilities arose, ranging from the aesthetic ideal of obese women and ethological signals of “biological readiness” to prosaic yearnings for erotic stimulation and other masculine socio sexual drives. For some scholars it seemed obvious that the bulging volumes of obese figurines were selectively made, touched, carved, and fondled by men.
  • It was not before the discovery of Paleolithic cave art in the early 20th century that the scientific community noticed that most works of prehistoric art had to be interpreted within the context of ritual and religious ideology. The first half of the 20th century was characterized by the unproven assumption, that people of the Paleolithic were only capable for a “magic” worldview but not for more sophisticated religious thinking. Therefore the Venus figurines were believed to play a role in magical practices connected with security and success and fertility. During the last 50 years it became clear that any extrapolation from the assigned thinking of contemporaneous hunters-gatherers (e.g. the San-people in the Kalahari, the Eskimos) to the thinking of people that lived thousands of years ago is highly problematic, as it does not take into account that every society has its own history and individual signature. Religious and ideological systems are dynamic and ever changing, especially when confronted with other beliefs and practices. The idea that belief systems may persist unchanged over many millennia is therefore unhistorical and highly questionable.
  • Another assumption, which was later adopted by feminists, interpreted the figurines as depictions or even direct representations of a mother goddess or various local goddesses. This theories were primed by another 19th century ideology, the theory of matriarchy, or “mother right,” developed by  J. J. Bachofen. Based on the scare archeological knowledge of his time and using the records of antique myths, Bachofen suggested that the early society was egalitarian and peaceful and ruled by women. The religion of this primal stage of culture was concerned with “the (Mother) Goddess.” A time of destruction followed and male-dominated, pastoral societies whose deity was male arose, the Goddess religion was suppressed and women were subordinated to the rule of men. It is worth noting, that the archaeological record in 2012 does not substantiate such an assumption and that scientific data from early farming communities rather indicate that at least the people who lived in southern Germany 7000 years ago were patrilocal (a social system in which a married couple resides with or near the husband’s parents).
  • Toward 1950 the enthusiasm for ethnographic hunting-and-fertility-magic interpretations gave way to a concern for “context” in Paleolithic art. Controlled excavation at rich Russian sites found figurines in the domestic context of hut floors, storage pits, and niches and led Russian Researchers to see female ancestor images at the core of a matrilineal clan organization. The difficulties of inferring intent from the archaeological context of these and later Russian discoveries are is, that such an assumption was primary driven by a Marxist approach of reconstructing prehistory and cannot neither be verified or falsified because a lack of sufficient paleo genetical data on this topic.
  • For some male figurines, the “shamanistic theory” is currently preferred. According to Mircea Eliade (1951), Shamanism encompasses the belief that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human and the spirit worlds. Shamans are in the role of spiritual champions and guardians of the psychic equilibrium of their communities. They are both masters of “the archaic technique of ecstasy,” and “specialists in the sacred”. According to Eliade Shamanism was once a widespread and worldwide religion dating back to the Upper Paleolithic period and religious beliefs and magical practices of historical hunting-gathering cultures were derived from Paleolithic Shamanism and preserved the message of this “archaic religion”. Eliade was adherent to the 19th century ideas of an Eurocentric, linear evolutionism and to the early twentieth century school of anthropology. He relied on written reports, recorded by untrained travelers in Siberia and elsewhere during the historic period (sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries) and looked for similar “shamanistic” elements in the literature to construct a romanticized portrayal of a primary and worldwide shamanistic religion. Moreover Eliade simply ignored that the types of cultures in Siberia during the historical period differed significantly from the Paleolithic cultures in which shamanism purportedly played a role.  In a critical review it appears that any direct evidence for a Paleolithic shamanism is poor. Even the most prominent pictorial Paleolithic examples that could be interpreted as shamans or shamanistic scenes or graves that could be burials of shamans are still open to various equally plausible or equally implausible Interpretations.

Suggested sources:

First of all: Donsmap; the most important web-site about this topic!

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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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