PALEOLITHIC and NEOLITHIC
PALEOLISTHIC (OLD STONE AGE) ART, ca. 30,000–9000 BCE
VENUS OF WILLENDORF The composite feline-human from Germany is exceptional for the Stone Age. The vast majority of prehistoric sculptures depict either animals or humans. In the earliest art, humankind consists almost exclusively of women as opposed to men, and the painters and sculptors almost invariably showed them nude, although scholars generally assume that during the Ice Age both women and men wore garments covering parts of their bodies. When archaeologists first discovered Paleolithic statuettes of women, they dubbed them “Venuses,” after the Greco-Roman goddess of beauty and love, whom artists usually depicted nude (FIG. 5-62). The nickname is inappropriate and misleading. It is doubtful that the Old Stone Age figurines represented deities of any kind. One of the oldest and the most famous of the prehistoric female figures is the tiny limestone figurine of a woman that long has been known as the Venus of Willendorf (FIG. 1-5) after its findspot in Austria. Its cluster of almost ball-like shapes is unusual, the result in part of the sculptor’s response to the natural shape of the stone selected for carving. The anatomical exaggeration has suggested to many that this and similar statuettes served as fertility images. But other Paleolithic stone women of far more slender proportions exist, and the meaning of these images is as elusive as everything else about Paleolithic Paleolithic Art 3 1-4 Human with feline head, from Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, ca. 30,000–28,000 BCE. Mammoth ivory, 11 5 – 8 high. Ulmer Museum, Ulm. One of the oldest known sculptures is this large ivory figure of a human with a feline head. It is uncertain whether the work depicts a composite creature or a human wearing an animal mask. 1-5 Nude woman (Venus of Willendorf ), from Willendorf, Austria, ca. 28,000–25,000 BCE. Limestone, 4 1 – 4 high. Naturhistorisches Museum,Vienna. The anatomical exaggerations in this tiny figurine from Willendorf are typical of Paleolithic representations of women, whose child-bearing capabilities ensured the survival of the species. 1 in. 1 in. 73558_02_Ch01_p001-015.qxd 10/20/08 8:10 AM Page 3 art. Yet the preponderance of female over male figures in the Old Stone Age seems to indicate a preoccupation with women, whose child-bearing capabilities ensured the survival of the species. One thing at least is clear. The Venus of Willendorf sculptor did not aim for naturalism in shape and proportion. As with most Paleolithic figures, the sculptor did not carve any facial features. Here the carver suggested only a mass of curly hair or, as some researchers have recently argued, a hat woven from plant fibers—evidence for the art of textile manufacture at a very early date. In either case, the emphasis is on female anatomy. The breasts of the Willendorf woman are enormous, far larger than the tiny forearms and hands that rest upon them. The carver also took pains to scratch into the stone the outline of the pubic triangle. Sculptors often omitted this detail in other early figurines, leading some scholars to question the nature of these figures as fertility images. Whatever the purpose of these statuettes, the makers’ intent seems to have been to represent not a specific woman but the female form.
-NEOLITHIC (NEW STONE AGE) ART, ca. 8000–2300 BCE
AIN GHAZAL Near Amman, Jordan, the construction of a highway in 1974 revealed another important Neolithic settlement in ancient Palestine at the site of Ain Ghazal, occupied from ca. 7200 to ca. 5000 BCE. The inhabitants built houses of irregularly shaped stones, but carefully plastered and then painted their floors and walls red. The most striking finds at Ain Ghazal, however, are two caches containing three dozen plaster statuettes (FIG. 1-15) and busts, some with two heads, datable to ca. 6500 BCE. The sculptures appear to have been ritually buried. The figures were fashioned of white plaster, which was built up over a core of reeds and twine. The sculptors used black bitumen, a tarlike substance, to delineate the pupils of the eyes. On some of the later figures painters added clothing. Only rarely did the artists indicate the gender of the figures. Whatever their purpose, by their size (as much as three feet tall) and sophisticated technique, the Ain Ghazal statuettes and busts are distinguished from Paleolithic figurines such as the tiny Venus of Willendorf (FIG. 1-5) and even the foot-tall Hohlenstein-Stadel ivory statuette (FIG. 1-4). They mark the beginning of monumental sculpture in the ancient Near East.