Prehistoric Mobiliary Art
Definition, Characteristics Types, Examples of Portable Artworks and Statuettes.

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Venus of Dolni Vestonice (26,000 BCE)
Natural History Museum, Vienna.
This is the world's oldest example
of ceramic sculpture. See Earliest Art.

Mobiliary Art (40,000-2,500 BCE)
Paleolithic Statuettes, Sculptures and Carved Objects


Definition and Characteristics
Types of Mobiliary Art
Dating Techniques
Famous Examples
- Ivories
- Stone
- Terracotta
- Wood
- Precious Metals
Related Articles

Shigir Idol (c.7,500 BCE)
Head and chest.
Yekaterinburg Museum, Russia.
Mobiliary art from the Mesolithic era.
This thin 8-feet tall sculpture is the
world's oldest wood carving. It is
now kept inside a glass box filled
with inert gas, to prevent decay.
See Oldest Stone Age Art.

Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro
(c.2500 BCE). A masterpiece of
early Indian sculpture from the
Indus Valley civilization.

Definition and Characteristics

In archeology, the term "mobiliary art" is commonly used to denote any small-scale prehistoric art that is moveable (mobile), including: most forms of prehistoric sculpture, notably the mysterious Venus figurines that first appeared around 35,000 BCE; most types of ivory carving, including engraved bone tools; and any other statuettes, objects or jewellery art made from precious metals. One of the most famous examples is the ancient piece of Sumerian art known as The Guennol Lioness (c.3,000 BCE), which sold in 2007 for $56 million. It is estimated that roughly 10,000 items of mobiliary art have been discovered so far. Pottery is another form of portable art (albeit a highly functional one) which (we now know) first appeared during the Upper Paleolithic. For the world's most ancient pottery, see: Xianrendong Cave Pottery (c.18,000 BCE).

The opposite of such "mobiliary art" is "parietal art", which refers to cave art that is found on cave walls, floors or ceilings, and which therefore cannot be moved. While mobiliary artworks have been found on almost every continent of the world, the oldest art of this type emerged in Western Europe during the late era of Paleolithic art and culture (40,000-10,000 BCE). The two exceptions to this are the small humanoid effigies known as the "Venus of Berekhat Ram" (230-700,000 BCE) and the "Venus of Tan-Tan" (200-500,000 BCE). Created during the Acheulean culture of the Lower Paleolithic period, their advanced age means that they were made not by Homo sapiens neanderthalensis but by the more primitive Homo erectus. They are the first known human attempts at sculpture, and the oldest examples of mobiliary art in prehistory. For more about the chronology of Upper Paleolithic culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (2.5 Million - 500 BCE).

Ordinarily, one would have expected Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to produce more mobiliary art than cave art: after all, hunter-gatherers were typically on the move, following herds of animals. In addition, carving is a skill practiced by most hunters. However, it is possible that the Ice Age forced Stone Age man into the warmth and security of underground caves, some of which became sacred sanctuaries, where cave painting may have formed part of the rituals promoting successful hunting. Furthermore, it is probable that much, if not most, mobiliary art either has decayed, or has been lost or destroyed.

Types of Mobiliary Art

As mentioned above, this category of Stone Age art includes any type of bone/tusk carving (like the famous Venus fertility symbols), portable stone sculpture, or terracotta sculpture (including ceramic art), or wood carving. Other materials used, included clay, steatite, serpentine, quartzite, jasper, jet, limonite, soapstone and even amber. It also includes items of applied art (mainly engraved tools), as well as a wide variety of precious objects and personal jewellery. During the later Neolithic period, caches of mobiliary art in the form of engraved weaponry, horse-bits and other equestrian equipment, as well as crowns, tiaras, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, amulets, rings, studs, brooches, torcs, hairpins and belt buckles, were often buried in the tombs and underground sepulchres of chieftains and religious leaders. By the time of Iron Age art, mobiliary artworks were the dominant feature of Celtic Hallstatt Culture (c.800-450 BCE) and La Tene Culture (c.500-50 BCE), along with their abstract Celtic designs.

Unlike the vast majority of "parietal art", which is dominated by animal themes, and has very few human figures, portable art depicts roughly as many 'human' as it does 'animal' figures. By the time of the Neolithic more humans were being represented than animals.

Dating Techniques

Unlike cave paintings and rock engravings whose age can often be calculated with reference to the soil stratas, rock samples and artifacts found in the cave, dating mobiliary art can be more difficult, especially when objects are discovered miles from their 'source'. Furthermore, in the case of (say), an engraved piece of stone, the dating method might be able to date the stone, but it can't say when it was engraved.

The leading method for dating mobiliary art is rardiocarbon dating, which dates organic materials. Another technique is Thermoluminescence dating - for dating inorganic material including pottery and other ceramic artifacts. One of the most modern dating methods is Uranium-thorium dating, also known as uranium-series dating, used to determine the age of calcium carbonate materials. Other methods include dendrochronology - used for dating trees, and other wooden objects, and cosmic radiation dating - used to to measure levels of Berylllium 10 in rocks.

Famous Examples of Mobiliary Art


The oldest pieces of mobiliary art tend to be ivory or bone carvings.

Ivory Carvings of the Swabian Jura (c.35,000-28,000 BCE)
From Vogelherd, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geissenklosterle and Hohle Fels caves, these works of Aurignacian art includes: Venus of Hohle Fels (38-33,000 BCE), the anthropomorphic Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (c.38,000 BCE, Ulmer Museum, Ulm), and other animals. Now in the Museum of Prehistory in Blaubeuren and Tubingen University.

Venus of Moravany (24,000 BCE)
Mammoth ivory venus from Moravany nad Vahom in Slovakia.
Gravettian culture.
Bratislava Castle Museum.

Venus of Brassempouy (c.23,000 BCE)
Ivory carving from Brassempouy, Landes, France.
Gravettian culture.
Museum of National Antiquities, Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Venus of Lespugue (c.23,000 BCE)
Ivory statuette from the rock shelter of Les Rideaux, Haute Garonne, France.
Gravettian culture.
Musee de l'homme, Paris.

Venus of Kostenky (c.22,000 BCE)
Bone carving from the Don Region, Russia.
Aurignacian culture.
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Mal'ta Venuses (c.20,000 BCE)
Mammoth ivory statuettes found in a cave near Lake Baikal, Russia.
Gravettian art.
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Avdeevo Venuses (c.20,000 BCE)
Ivory figurines from Kursk, central Russia.
Gravettian culture.
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Zaraysk Venuses (c.20,000 BCE)
Mammoth tusk sculptures and bison carving.
Gravettian culture.
Moscow oblast, Russia.

Reindeer Antler Tool (Lortet Reindeer) (c.15,000 BCE)
Engraved bone carving found in the Lortet Cave, Hautes-Pyrenees, France.
Magdalenian culture.
Archeological And Middle Age Museum, Saint-Germain-En-Laye.

Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BCE)
Rare Magdalenian era venus figurine, resembling the French statuette known as the Venus Impudique (14,000 BCE).
Magdalenian culture.
Bryansk oblast, Russia.


Soft rock like limestone has been one of the favourite media of artists throughout the history of sculpture.

Venus of Galgenberg (c.30,000 BCE)
Serpentine stone figurine from Stratzing, Lower Austria.
Aurignacian culture.
Natural History Museum, Vienna.

Apollo 11 Cave Stones (c.25,500 BCE)
Quartzite slabs decorated with pictures of animals.
African Middle Stone Age.
Huns Mountains, southwest Namibia.

Venus of Monpazier (c.25,000 BCE)
Limonite stone figurine from Dordogne, France.
Gravettian culture.
Archeological And Middle Age Museum, Saint Germain-En-Laye.

Venus of Willendorf (c.25,000 BCE)
Oolitic Limestone statuette from central Danube region, Lower Austria.
Gravettian culture.
Natural History Museum, Vienna.

Venus of Savignano (c.24,000 BCE)
Serpentine carving found near the Panaro River, Italy.
Gravettian culture.
Pigorini Museum, Rome.

Venus of Gagarino (c.20,000 BCE)
Volcanic rock sculpture from the Upper Don River, Russia.
Gravettian art.
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Venus of Engen (13,000 BCE)
Also known as the Petersfels venus, this German figurine is carved out of jet, a type of semi-precious lignite. Very similar in style to the Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel, it was discovered in Engen, near Lake Constance.

Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel (10,000 BCE)
Swiss Magdalenian pendant of a stylized human figure, discovered in 1990 in Neuchatel, Switzerland. It is the oldest item of prehistoric art ever found in Switzerland and one of the oldest items of ancient jewellery.

Ain Sakhri Lovers (c.9000 BCE)
Calcite cobble found in the Ain Sakhri caves outside Bethlehem.
Mesolithic art, Middle East.
British Museum, London

Fish God of Lepenski Vir (5000 BCE)
Engraved sandstone cobble.
Neolithic Period, Balkans.
National Museum, Belgrade.

Crouching Figure (c.5,000)
Stone figurine from Magoula Karamourla, Magnesia, Greece.
Neolithic Period, Greece.
Archeological Museum, Volos.


Few examples of terracotta mobiliary art have survived, although life-size statues like the Chinese Terracotta Army Warriors (c.220 BCE) have become world famous.

Venus of Dolni Vestonice (c.26,000 BCE)
Oldest known work of terracotta sculpture in the world.
From the Moravian basin south of Brno, Czech Republic.
Aurignacian/Gravettian cultures.
Natural History Museum, Vienna.

Goddess Figurine (c.5,750 BCE)
Oldest Example of terracotta sculpture from Asia Minor.
Catalhoyuk, Anatolia, Turkey.
Neolithic art.
Museum of Anatolian Civilizations

Thinker of Cernavoda (5000 BCE)
Extraordinary figure from the lower Danube region.
Neolithic Period.
National Museum of Romanian History, Bucharest.

Samarra Plate (5000 BCE)
Iraqi Samarra ware from south of Baghdad.
Among the earliest pottery made with a slow-turned potter's wheel.
Early Halaf Period
Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.


Almost no wood carving survives from prehistory. One miraculous exception is the Russian Shigir Idol.

The Shigir Idol (7500 BCE)
Oldest wooden sculpture in the world.
Found in a peat bog near Shigir, Yekaterinburg, Russian Urals.
Mesolithic Period. See Russian Art (30,000 BCE - 1900)
"Historic Exhibition" Museum in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Precious Metals and Other Materials

Jewellery is one of the oldest types of mobiliary art, but the one most vulnerable to thieves or most likely to be melted down for other uses.

Pig Dragon Pendant (c.3,800 BCE)
Chinese jade carving from Niuheliang, Liaoning Province, NE China.
Late Neolithic Hongshan Culture
Liaoning Institute of Archeology, Shenyang.

Kneeling Bull with Vessel (c.3,000 BCE)
Silver figurine from southwest Iran.
Proto-Elamite Period. See Ancient Persian Art (3,500 BCE onwards).
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Guennol Lioness (c.3000 BCE)
Private Collection.
This rare proto-Elamite period sculpture of an anthropomorphic lioness-woman was found near Baghdad, Iraq. In 2007 at Sotheby's, New York it was sold for $57.2 million. See Mesopotamian Art (from 4,500 BCE)

The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro (c.2500 BCE)
Bronze Sculpture
Harappan Culture, Indus Valley Civilization, India.
National Museum, New Delhi, India.

Maikop Gold Bull (c.2500 BCE)
Gold sculpture from North Caucasus, Russia.
Maikop Culpture.
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Ram in a Thicket (c.2500 BCE)
Found in the Great Death Pit, Ur. Made from gold, silver, copper, lapis lazuli and red limestone.
Early Dynastic Period.
British Museum, London.
See: Mesopotamian Sculpture.

Related Articles

• For prehistoric bronze sculptures, see: Sanxingdui Bronzes (1200-1000 BCE)
• For handprints and finger fluting, see: Hand Stencils Rock Art (40,000 BCE).


• For more about prehistoric portable artworks, statuettes or other carved objects, see: Homepage.

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