Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Stone Age Women

The most famous early image of a human, a woman, is the so-called "Venus" of Willendorf. Diffusion is a word used to describe the borrowing of cultural elements from one people to another, or the giving of cultural elements from one culture to another. The borrowing of elements can be found in many different places in many different ways. For example, the introduction of wine to Greece, from Crete in trade, eventually led to a wine trade in Greece, and a ritualistic use of the wine (as the originators of Crete had also used it in many rituals). The Venus of Willendorf is at best a sketchy example of diffusion, but serves a definite purpose in the scheme of human history. With the Willendorf figurines, are seen the first images of a Paleolithic female, or goddess figure, and with them the ability of humans to take from their own minds and create an image in the form of art. The Willendorf figurines also and most importantly represent fertility in some form, and can easily be translated to the later fertility goddesses of older civilizations. This on it's own is an example of the diffusion of the Willendorf figurines, however there is a more finite form of diffusion with them. For the figurines to have traveled to such vast territories between Western France and Western Russia, one hunter gatherer tribe could not have necessarily made the journey. There had to be other hunter gatherer groups through out the area. Perhaps it was a systematic trading of the figurines to other cultures which occurred, where specific groups took the icons and crafted them to represent fertility figurines of their own group, or perhaps it was a universal image which only with the advent of sculpture was incorporated into the lives of the Paleolithic peoples. All of the above mentioned are examples of possible diffusion of the Venus figurines, which have played an important role in Paleolithic culture.
Venus of Willendorf, found in 1908 by the archaeologist Josef Szombathy in an Aurignacian loess deposit near the town of Willendorf in Austria. The earliest notice of its discovery appeared in a report by the Yale anthropologist George Grant MacCurdy (1863-1947) who happened to be in Vienna in the summer of 1908. Although the greater part of the collection of finds from the site had not yet been unpacked, MacCurdy reported excitedly that before he left Vienna Szombathy had very kindly shown him a single remarkable specimen - a human figurine, full length, carved out of stone and now in the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The statuette was carved from a particular type of oolitic limestone not found in the region and so must have been brought to the area from another location. It may well be the case that the carving, which was presumably done with flint tools, was not done locally.
When first discovered the "Venus" of Willendorf was thought to date to approximately 15,000 to 10,000 BCE, or more or less to the same period as the cave paintings at Lascaux in France.
In the 1970s the date was revised back to 25,000-20,000 BCE, and then in the 1980s it was revised again to c. 30,000-25,000 BCE A study of the stratigraphic sequence of the nine superimposed archaeological layers comprising the Willendorf deposit published in 1990, which offers a key for the relative and absolute Carbon 14 chronology of the Central European Upper Palaeolithic, however, now indicates a date for the "Venus" of Willendorf of around 24,000-22,000 BCE (26-24,000 B.P.).
Her great age and exaggerated female forms have established the "Venus" of Willendorf as an icon of prehistoric art. As the discipline of art history underwent a paradigm shift during the 1960s away from discussing art objects that were characteristic of an age to selecting art objects that represented the highest artistic accomplishments of the age, no matter how unique and extraordinary, the "Venus" of Willendorf quickly achieved a singular status.
Although she was already being included in books devoted to Stone Age art published in the 1920s, it is not until the 1960s that the statuette begins to appear in the introductory art history books where she quickly displaced other previously used examples of Palaeolithic art. Being both female and nude, she fitted perfectly into the patriarchal construction of the history of art that has tended to emphasize the more derogatory depictions of women in art through the ages.
As the earliest known representation, she became the "first" woman, acquiring an Ur-Eve identity that focused suitably, from a patriarchal point of view, on the fascinating yet grotesque reality of the female body and its bulging vegetable nature; an impersonal composition of sexually-charged swollen shapes; an embodiment of overflowing fertility, of mindless fecundity, of eternal sex, the woman from which all women descend. To date, hundreds of similar carved ritual figures have been discovered all over the world- their exact purpose can only be speculated about.

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