New research into the Venus of Willendorf has shed more light on the fascinating prehistoric figurine’s construction and its possible origins. The c.30,000-year-old statue is exactly 11cm tall and depicts a stylised, faceless adult female, with exaggerated sexual features and an elaborate headdress or hairstyle. A number of other Palaeolithic female figurines have been found across Europe but, unlike the Willendorf Venus, which is made from an oolitic limestone (a type of sedimentary rock made up of spherical grains called ooids), most of these other examples are constructed from bone or ivory, making the stone figurine one of the most exceptional examples of early art known from the region.
The statue was discovered in 1908, but its unique value meant that invasive internal investigations were impossible. Now, however, a new study – led by Gerhard Weber from the University of Vienna and Alexander Lukeneder, Mathias Harzhauser, and Walpurga Antl-Weiser from the Natural History Museum Vienna – has used micro-computed tomography to see inside the figurine without damaging it. This process uses high-resolution tomographic images taken using X-rays to create a 3D view of an object, slice by slice, offering a level of resolution that is otherwise only possible through microscopic examination of physical samples. The analysis revealed that the limestone used to create the Venus was not at all uniform on the inside – a discovery that offered important clues about where this stone may have come from.
Researchers compared the Venus’s material to rock samples across Europe and analysed characteristics such as their grain sizes, sedimentary composition, and age. They determined that none of the samples from within a 200km radius of Willendorf, in Lower Austria, were even remotely similar to the stone used to create the Venus. Eventually, though, they found a match. The samples from Sega di Ala, a spot near Lake Garda in northern Italy, were virtually identical to the Willendorf Venus. If this site was the source of the stone used to make the Venus, that would mean that the figurine, or at least its raw material, had made an impressive journey from south of the Alps all the way up to the Danube. The paper also identified a second location with rock similar to the Venus of Willendorf: Isjium, in eastern Ukraine. Although the rock from this site is less similar to the Venus than the material from Sega di Ala, it cannot be ruled out, and several other stylistically similar figurines have been found in nearby Russia, raising questions about the long-distance spread of cultural artefacts from east to west. In either case, these results point to a high level of mobility among the Gravettian people who created the statue.
Tomographic analysis of the Venus also revealed new details about its composition. It was discovered that the cores of the ooids (the globules that make up the stone) had dissolved, making the stone porous. This explains why the sculptor may have chosen this material – oolite with dissolved nuclei is much easier to work with and lighter to transport. The new research has also answered the mystery of the hemispherical pits dotted around the surface of the figurine. Previous investigations have speculated whether the Venus’ navel was a natural pit or a deliberate creation, but the presence of other pits in locations such as the right knee and the shoulder region, which do not correspond to any anatomical features, could not be explained. The tomographic images revealed that the rock used to make the Venus contains a number of large, dense grains, known as limonites, which are more resistant than the oolite material around them, some of which must have broken off during carving, leaving behind the hemispherical cavities.
This research demonstrates the ways in which modern technology can shed new light on an important piece of Palaeolithic art, discovered over a century ago. The results of the investigation have been published in Scientific Reports (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-06799-z).
Images: Lois Lammerhube, from A Kern and W Antl-Weiser (2008) Venus, Baden: Edition-Lammerhuber; ©Gerhard Weber, University of Vienna. TEXT: Amy Brunskill