So, here's a bit of the foreword! (Unedited, btw!!)
The archaeological record has been built around changes. It has been commonly accepted and anticipated amongst prehistoric academics that the defining point between one time period and another is the change that occurs. It is interesting however when taking the Upper Palaeolithic period into consideration to note the amount of continuity, rather the lack of changes. As put forth by Martin Porr in his 2010 article ‘Palaeolithic Art as Cultural Memory: a Case Study of the Aurignacian Art of South West Germany’, there is a degree to which continuity occurs between the Aurignacian and the later Gravettian period especially when considering their artistic qualities (Porr 2010b). Both the Aurignacian and the Gravettian periods yield evidence for both parietal and mobiliary rock art, most notably in the form of figurines depicting animals and anthropomorphs (Porr 2010b).
Martin Porr’s article on the uses of ‘Cultural Memory’ within the period of the Upper Palaeolithic raises a number of very valid points. In particular Porr makes reference to the ‘Venus’ statuettes, predominately related to the Gravettian period, and their interpretation but focuses mainly on information given by the new-found Venus of Hohle Fels in south-western Germany. In his article Porr suggests that this new addition to the ‘Venus’ phenomena contributes to the idea of a continuity between Aurignacian and Gravettian art in relation to “figurative expressions and related elements of cultural memory” (Porr 2010b, p. 103).
Between the Aurignacian period of the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe between 40,000-28,000BP and the later Gravettian period from 28,000-22,000BP, prehistoric archaeologists have often indicated the birth of real ‘art’. ‘Art’, which the Macquarie Study Dictionary refers to as “the production or expression of what is beautiful or visually attractive; the products of human visual creativity, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture”, is a vastly complicated area of archaeological study (Moore 1998). In the modern Western world today art can be almost anything and everything therefore creates a number of problems for archaeologists in ascertaining what from the Palaeolithic can be considered art, and what the people of the Palaeolithic themselves considered art. The controversially famous ‘Venus’ Statuettes are amongst the most prominent studied aspects of Upper Palaeolithic ‘art’, as well as the earliest known use of ceramics, and have to date instigated numerous arguments over the nature of their significance.
This project, however, is aimed primarily at the importance of the physical and contextual significance of the Venus Statuettes of the Upper Palaeolithic across mainland Europe. By investigating many of the previous works and interpretations of and about the Statuettes themselves, the context in which they were found, and other significant contextual information surrounding the archaeological sites, I have hoped to infer significance of these figurines in relation to their surroundings. In order to do this I intend to closely regard a number of different types of evidence and information to therefore systematically establish a greater picture of the subject matter.
Forums of evidence such as spatial distributive information of the sites in which Venus statuettes of the Gravettian have been found, ethnological similarities with known cultures, size data regarding the statuettes, physicality and style information, site contexts, and the raw materials used to construct them will be used in this investigation to reach a conclusion.
From my research into the context of the Venus Statuettes I also aim to establish whether there can be any evidence for a spiritual culture or belief system that took place during this time. The difference in settlement style, from permanent to more obscure hunting or fabricating sites, the artefact collection types surrounding the Venus, the geographical location of the sites and manor in which the Venus was found are all significant for this investigation.
The existence of the Venus Statuettes within permanent settlements, whether buried intentionally, suspended from somewhere by the small loophole at their head (found on some of the figurines, such as the Venus of Hohle Fels) as opposed to in burials or without a related cultural layer is greatly significant. This shows that the statuettes were of some importance to the people but not in the sense that they should be placed with the dead as burial goods. Although as yet there is little evidence to suggest that the Venus figurines were not important tokens for the people of the Upper Palaeolithic even in death, this site contextual information is greatly important to the understanding of these figurines. In turn comparing the site contexts of the statuettes between the Aurignacian and Gravettian may also lend answers to the degree to which continuity between these two archaeological time periods has occurred which is my overall aim.
Unfortunately, and ashamedly, the following interpretation of the contextual significance of the Venus Statuettes is derived majorly from previous works, monographs, and excavation reports, not from my personal visitation or excavation of the sites. Although the visitation to the sites and personal handling of the Statuettes would greatly strengthen or disapprove my arguments here, the budget available at the time of my research did not permit for excavation or travel to Europe. Respectively, excavation of the sites and firsthand analysis of the Statuettes myself would be the first step in further research of the topic.
A number of different types and shapes of Venuses have been used in this investigation to give a well-rounded and hopefully fairer interpretation of the cultural complex. Over fifty statuettes have been used to make my argument, based majorly on previous documents and monographs that document them, in order to do so including figurines from the Grimaldi, or Balzi Rossi, sites of Itlay, Brassempouy in France, Dolni Vestonice I in the Czech Republic, the very famous Venus of Willendorf from Austria, and the numerous examples from the sites of Kostienki, Avdeevo and Gagarino on the Russian Plain. I have also used the singular Aurignacian ‘Venus’ example from the site of Hohle Fels in south-western Germany.
I have chosen to use these examples to view in greater detail rather than those from other sites such as Mal’ta and the Mediterranean simply because the area is already so great that it would be even more difficult to do justice to the enigmatic cultural complex. However, having not included every site and ‘Venus’ in my investigation I acknowledge that any interpretation I make is based on the sites I have looked at, not the entire phenomenon and that further research is required to be able to do so.