Interpreting Venus Figurines—the Ambiguity of Descriptive Terms and their Impact on Reasoned Analysis of Artifacts

by Cathy L.Z. Smith
[email protected]

Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

“… Anne!” … Jubal called out, “That house on the hilltop—can you see what color they’ve painted it?”

Anne looked, then answered, “It’s white on this side.”

Jubal went on to Jill, “You see? It doesn’t occur to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too. All the King’s horses couldn’t force her to commit herself … unless she went there and looked—and even then she wouldn’t assume that it stayed white after she left.”

—Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

It has been variously suggested that the so-called Venus figurines portray goddesses, dolls, toys, wards, amulets, worry stones, and teaching aides, to name a few. They have been described as self-reverential, self-referential, educational, mystical, mythical, and erotic, with the advocates of various interpretations judged guilty, by some of their peers, of biases ranging from chauvinism, to feminism, to mysticism, to racism. In some cases those accusations are clearly appropriate, but in others they may not be true at all.

It is my goal in this paper to briefly discuss the impact of an investigator’s choice of descriptive words and phrases through the lens of analysis of the Venus figurines, and to examine the consequences, as investigators, of the tendency to see what we are prepared to see, and of audiences to object to what they think others are seeing through the filter of their own contextualized interpretation. I propose that we must learn, as both investigator and audience, to report accurately, strive for clarity, and rely on scientific analysis and controlled contextual evidence, and that we must learn to listen as clearly and carefully as we speak.

There is a fairly broad pallet of interpretation among the required sources. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford’s (1991) religious/mystical interpretation implies that of the 130 statues discovered “… [the figurines] are always naked, generally small and often pregnant…having the look of mothers…focused on the overwhelming mystery of birth” (Baring and Cashford 1991:6). The authors make no attempt to conceal their earth-mother-goddess bias, and, in fact, proclaim it rather boldly through their choice of Chief Seattle’s opening prose.

Heather Pringle’s (2005) report on the Dolní Vestonice figures includes the somewhat-mocking feminist style of Olga Soffer, which detracts from Soffer’s otherwise well-illustrated and well-taken points about the participation of women as fully-functioning agents and partners in Upper Paleolithic life. Pringle also cites Margherita Mussi’s mystical interpretation of the figures as more ritualistic and self-reverential, celebratory of the status of women as spiritual elites, possibly with supernatural powers “… rather like the shamans of ancient Siberia” (Pringle 2005:83).

Sarah Nelson (1990) underscores the previously common perception that the figurines were “made by men for men’s purposes,” with the underlying assumption that “females are assumed to exist primarily for the use of males, sexually or reproductively,” and insightfully calls into question the implicit assumption that nudity is universally unusual, attractive, or seductive (Nelson 1990:16-17). Nelson also documents the high degree of variability even among those figurines that are demonstrably female, a point which itself nicely illustrates the technique of generalization to obscure problematic evidence.

Pamela Russell (1998) takes a noticeably more balanced and unbiased approach pointing out that early identifications were tied to the perception of women as passive symbols of fertility, sometimes erotic, but “…simply producers of children and useful for their abilities in the domestic sphere,” and contrasts their descriptions with subsequent feminist interpretations that arrive at the mother-goddess and female-supreme-being destination by way of no-less-biased matriarchal routes and with comparably insubstantial supporting evidence (Russell 1998:262-264).

Dobres’ (1995) identification of “Venus envy” (man so overwhelmed by the superiority of women he identifies any portrayal with human-like qualities as woman), coupled with her statement that of the 125 figures she personally analyzed fewer than one-half were “clearly and unequivocally female” (Dobres 1995:255), provides an interesting counterpoint to Baring and Cashford’s identification of any Upper Paleolithic figurine as “goddess,” seemingly by definition.

Catherine Hodge McCoid and LeRoy McDermott (1996) (and subsequently McDermott in an expanded narrative) identify the Pavlovian-Kostenkian-Gravettian (PKG) subset of figurines as self-referential—images created by woman employing her own body as model (McCoid and McDermott 1996:319-326; McDermott 1996:227-275).

All of these sources serve to highlight a major difficulty surrounding the analysis of these Venus figurines: that those who are not the excavators are immediately hindered by a level of removal from the physical evidence, and necessarily limited to information confined to someone else’s interpretation of the artifacts’ contextual framework. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that many of these objects were meant to be carried and handled (this point is touched upon by Randall White in his critique of LeRoy McDermott [McDermott 1996:265]), and it is reasonable to assume that conclusions regarding their significance would benefit from tactile as well as visual analysis, yet, at best, the descriptions in my limited investigation make only the most feeble attempts at communicating that information.

In the absence of first-hand observation, we must examine them through the filter of another person’s perceptions, expressed in their own context-laden words, and frequently through yet another level of complexity due to the necessary translation of primary sources in other languages, overlain once again, with the translator’s interpretation. The words we as investigators choose to use as descriptors may seem clear and unambiguous to us, but they will almost certainly not be received that way by those who do not share their implicit common cultural (or personal) values. The addition to these circumstances of various mystical interpretations leaves us with very little fact, and much subjective fiction.

Among the obvious biases evident in presentations of these figurines are chauvinism, sexism, feminism, mysticism, eroticism, and racism, many times in combination with one another. Silvia Tomášková (2003) further points out that local histories and nationalism have their own “…history of discovery that influences how the data are collected, treated, analysed, and interpreted” and that “…historical and political contexts are closely tied to the methods used to define the recovered materials and construct data sets” (Tomášková 2003:489-490). The resultant layering of biases constructs a virtual minefield from which to attempt to extract objective truths.

Russell, among others, recognizes that there are likely as many reasons for the creation of these figurines as there are localities in which they are found and “…that the only valid evidence is that of the figurines themselves” (Russell 1998:265). Yet there is compelling reason to believe that a return to “first evidences” (or as near as we can achieve over the hundreds of intervening years) might be a fruitful approach, based on Randall White’s interpretation of the origins of material interpretation:

“… [M]ateriality implies cultural production involving, minimally: (a) selection and procurement of raw materials, (b) transformation of these into conventional forms via a set of techniques and relations of production and (c) the exchange/display/use of the finished objects. Each of these operational stages is of course played out in a particular social and cultural, not to mention, physical environment. Such an operational chain in the construction of representational objects leaves significant traces in the archaeological record…and raises for archaeologists the distinct possibility of studying, literally, the construction of meaning and its socio-spatial distribution.” (White 1992:541)

There is a tendency among some archaeological practitioners, as among some popularizers of archaeological activity, to readily impart mystical attributes to whatever archaeologists dig out of the ground; while it would be improper to dismiss mysticism altogether, “one must be cautious in assuming that [their] religion bore any resemblance to the monotheistic religions of today” (Russell 1998:267). A more productive line of pursuit might be to discover those attributes that are “highly visible and interpretable given a shared system of meaning…and have the effect of communicating not only intra-group distinctions but regional affiliations and group memberships as well” (White 1992:541).

Given the opportunity to encounter a representational object in situ (and without actually having participated in a field experience, and therefore knowing that I’m missing important details of how such things actually work) my first priority would be to secure the site to facilitate the establishment and documentation of its stratigraphic context and provenience, including a written narrative in the most objective terms of which I’m capable. Assuming I’m not alone in my excavation, I would ask at least one, and preferably two, others to perform the same series of steps, particularly the written narrative. My second priority would be to attempt to link the found object to other artifacts in the same location typologically. Provided other items with similar characteristics are in evidence, my next step would be seriation. Following relative-dating techniques and depending on the location of the find, my next step would be to try to establish an absolute date. Locating other sites in the “region” (however that area might be defined, whether by proximity or some other commonality) would be a next step to investigate possible common cultural traits and traditions as an attempt at discovering what values, thoughts, and beliefs might be materially represented by the artifacts.

My biases: I am a non-mystical rationalist with a dedication to scientific process and procedure. I am a secular humanist and while I understand that mysticism and superstition exist (and have existed in the past) I would consider it my duty to not to superimpose modern social, cultural, or religious beliefs on the evidence. I am not a feminist, though I believe without question that humanity benefits from the partnership of the sexes and the division of labor that must have existed in the past and continues to exist throughout our history and today, even as that division transforms to accommodate modern values and roles. It would be my goal to “let the evidence speak for itself” primarily by resisting the temptation to draw conclusions or advance theories that are not supported by the evidence at hand.

I very much appreciate the broadly-inclusive methodology proposed by Silvia

Tomášková, speaking in the context of geographical mapping, “… it calls for more explicit acknowledgment of the historical situatedness of our current mapping practices, alongside a continuing consideration of alternative approaches and engagement with multiple forms of representation that reflect on each other” (Tomášková 2007:277).

In conclusion, I think that the interpretation of Venus figurines, and, in fact, of all artifacts, should be approached with respect, caution, an open-mind, and clarity of communication that reduces the opportunity for misunderstanding. Further, since we are all human, and prone to biases even with the best of intentions, we must strive for a view that is neither chauvinist, nor feminist, nor mystical, nor nationalist until and unless the evidence takes us there.


Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford (1991) The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London: Penguin. Chapter 1 excerpt: “In the Beginning: The Paleolithic Mother Goddess.” pp. 3-13.

Dobres, Marica-Ane (1992) “Re-considering Venus Figurines: A Feminist-Inspiried Re-analysis.” In Ancient Images, Ancient Thought: The Archaeology of Ideology,edited by A. Sean Goldsmith, Sandra Garvie, David Selin, and Jeanette Smith, pp. 245-262. University of Calgary Archaeological Association. Excerpt: pages 255-256.

Heinlein, Robert A. (1961) Stranger in a Strange Land. The Berkley Publishing Group, New York, NY.

McCoid, Catherine Hodge, and LeRoy D. McDermott (1996) “Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female Vision in the Upper Paleolithic”, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 98, No. 2, pp. 319-326.

McDermott, LeRoy D. (1996) “Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 227-275.

Nelson, Sarah M. (1990) “Diversity of the Upper Paleolithic ‘Venus’ Figurines and Archaeological Mythology.” In Powers of Observation: Alternative Views in Archaeology, edited by Sarah M. Nelson and Alice B. Khoe, pp. 11-22. Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 2.

Pringle, Heather (2005) “New Women of the Ice Age.” In Annual Editions: Archaeology 2004/2005, edited by Linda L. Hasten, pp. 78-83. Dubuque, Iowa: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Russell, Pamela (1998) “The Paleolithic Mother-Goddess: Fact or Fiction?” In Reader in Gender Archaeology, edited by Kelly Hays-Gilpin and David S Whitley, pp. 261-268. New York: Routledge.

Tomášková, Silvia (2003) “Nationalism, Local Histories and the Making of Data in Archaeology.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 485-507

Tomášková, Silvia (2007) “Mapping a Future: Archaeology, Feminism, and Scientific Practice.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 264-284.

White, Randall (1992) “Beyond Art: Toward an Understanding of the Origins of Material Representation in Europe.” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 21, pp. 537-564.


Reprinted from The Libertarian Enterprise for Number 619, May 15, 2011

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