Prehistoric Sculpture
Materials, Types, Characteristics, History of Stone Age Carving.

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Venus of Berekhat Ram
230,000 to 500,000 BCE.
See Earliest Art.

Prehistoric Sculpture (c.230,000 - 2,500 BCE)


Oldest Prehistoric Sculpture
-- Paleolithic
-- Mesolithic
-- Neolithic

Venus of Brassempouy (23,000 BCE).
Oldest Known Stone Age Portrait.

For details of early Stone Age artworks,
see: Oldest Stone Age Art (Top 100).


Prehistoric art is dominated by parietal art, such as cave painting and cave petroglyphs. Sculpture, being a form of portable or mobiliary art and thus more prone to destruction or loss, is less common, though no less significant in revealing the intellectual and artistic progress of the culture or artist involved. After all, plastic art is invariably more challenging and complex than two-dimensional arts such as drawing or painting. Not surprisingly, therefore, as Stone Age tools improved in quality - from primitive all-purpose implements to highly specialized instruments with differing shapes, blades and weights - so did Stone Age art. Not surprisingly, therefore, the arrival of anatomically modern man, who replaced Neanderthal Man during the period (c.50-20,000 BCE), had a major impact on both tool culture and sculpture in the Upper Paleolithic era, notably during the Aurignacian, Gravettian and Magdalenian periods. For more details, see Paleolithic Art and Culture.

Note: To see how statues, reliefs and other carvings evolved, chronologically, during the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic eras of the Stone Age, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

Relief Sculpture of a Horse (12,000 BC)
Roc-aux-Sorciers Angles-sur-l'Anglin.
Musee d'Archeologie Nationale, France.


Oldest Prehistoric Sculpture

The oldest known Stone Age sculpture is the Venus of Berekhat Ram, found on the Golan Heights, which dates back to the Acheulean culture of the Lower Paleolithic. A contemporaneous figurine - the Venus of Tan-Tan, was later discovered in Morocco. Made of volcanic rock (basalt and quartzite), both humanoid objects were created not by Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis but by the more primitive Homo Erectus, and are extremely primitive in style. Surprisingly, the next oldest prehistoric sculpture is the Venus of Hohle Fels (38,000-33,000 BCE). Why we had to wait so long for another human figurine is unclear, but at least it confirms the relatively advanced nature of early Aurignacian culture. Of course, as any archeologist or paleoanthropologist will confirm, an enormous number of prehistoric settlements, burial debris and artifacts remain to be discovered, excavated, analyzed and dated, so our view of what constitutes the Oldest Art is likely to change many times over the next few centuries.

Materials Used in Prehistoric Sculpture

The materials used in Paleolithic sculpture are quite diverse, varying according to region and locality. Most commonly prehistoric sculptors used mammoth bone and ivory in their carving (note: ivory encompasses any animal tooth or tusk), as well as the more perishable wood. In addition to bone and wood, artists also sculpted in stone, especially softer varieties like limestone, steatite and sandstone, as well as harder varieties like quartzite and serpentine. Clay and terracotta were also widely used in Stone Age figurines. During the later Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, as tools became stronger, Stone Age sculptors began carving with marble, limestone, porphyry, and granite. More rarely, they used precious materials such as silver, gold and jade, and began casting with bronze, pewter and zinc.

Types of Prehistoric Sculpture

There are five important types or categories of Stone Age sculpture, as follows:

(1) Ultra-Primitive Humanoid Objects (c.230,000 - 700,000 BCE)
Sculpted during the Lower Paleolithic era, these primitive effigies - considered by some archeologists to be the result of natural erosion, not human artistry - include the above mentioned Venuses of Berekhat Ram and Tan-Tan.

(2) Primitive Reliefs (from 23,000 BCE onwards)
The ability to work safely and undisturbed in a secure cave, may account for the relatively early appearance of prehistoric relief sculptures.

(3) Venus Figurines (from 40,000 BCE onwards)
Sculpted predominantly during the Aurignacian and Gravettian cultures (40-20,000 BCE), these small steatopygian Venus figurines - commonly considered to have totemic or fertility significance - have been discovered throughout Europe and beyond.

(4) Carvings of Anthropomorphic Figures (from 30,000 BCE onwards)
Varying considerably in size, human features and therianthropic value, these date back to the mid-Aurignacian.

(5) Carvings of Animal Figures (from 33,000 BCE onwards)
The strangest, most exotic and most varied of all types of prehistoric sculpture, these carvings frequently have mythological or religious significance.

Characteristics of Prehistoric Sculpture

(1) Ultra-Primitive Humanoid Objects

Of all ancient art of prehistory, the Lower Paleolithic sculptures are by far the most primitive. Discovered in 1981, the Venus of Berekhat Ram was such a crude representation of a human figure that some archeologists refused to recognize it as a work of art, believing instead that its shape had been caused by natural erosion. Only when a second similar object (Venus of Tan-Tan) was discovered in 1999, and dated to the same era, were these doubts largely overcome. Neither object bears any resemblance to the Venus figurines of the Upper Paleolithic.

(2) Reliefs

The only type of stone carving to be classified as "cave art", in that it forms part of the fabric of the rock shelter, relief sculpture is generally seen only when the cave walls consist of relatively soft stone, like limestone. Such was the case in both of the great Gravettian masterpieces: the bas-relief in the Abri du Poisson Cave (c.23,000 BCE) and the Venus of Laussel (c.23,000 BCE), both located in the French Dordogne. One of six Venus sculptures carved in relief, the Laussel work was sculpted from a free-standing 4-cubic metre block of stone, and unlike most of the other Venus figures, its hands can be seen quite clearly. Another masterpiece of Franco-Cantabrian cave art is the magnificent high relief of the Tuc d'Audoubert Bison (c.13,500 BCE) discovered at Ariege in France. Created during the Magdalenian period, it was located at the end of the cave, a 750-metre crawl from the entrance. Made out of unfired clay, the relief sculpture depicts two magnificent bison, both surrounded by piles of now-formless clay. (Most clay reliefs sculpted during the Stone Age have not survived.) Other important reliefs include the animal images and other megalithic art at the Gobekli Tepe megalith sanctuary in Turkey.

(3) Venus Figurines

Over 100 Upper Paleolithic Venus figurines have been excavated; nearly all between 2-10 inches tall. Most share several attributes in common, as follows: all depict a female figure; its shape is almost always grotesquely obese, with tapering points at the top (head) and bottom (legs); there is an exaggerated focus on the breasts, abdomen, vulva, hips and thighs; this contrasts with a correspondingly scant interest in other features of the body; the head, for instance, is usually small with little detail. However, while these Venus sculptures deliberately highlight the gender and physical characteristics of women, and thus invoke issues of fertility, few of them depict pregnancy or infant-bearing. Another noteworthy feature of these statuettes, is that - while examples have been found throughout western, central and eastern Europe - none have so far been unearthed in Spain or Portugal, despite significant artistic activity in the region during the middle and late Upper Paleolithic period. Lesser known Venuses include the French Venus of Monpazier (c.25,000 BCE), the Slovakian Venuses of Hradok and Moravany (c.24,000 BCE), the Russian Venus of Gagarino (20,000 BCE), the Siberian Venus of Mal'ta (c.20,000 BCE) and the Swiss Venus of Engen (c.13,000 BCE).

(4) Anthropomorphic Figures

Like the Venus figurines, these prehistoric anthropomorphic statuettes were carved in a wide variety of materials, including ivory (Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel), calcite cobble (Ain Sakhri Lovers sculpture), wood (The Shigir Idol - the oldest known wood carving) sandstone (Fish God of Lepenski Vir), terracotta (Thinker of Cernavoda), marble (Neolithic Greek Female Figurine, Metropolitan Museum, NY), bronze (The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro), and many others. Most were relatively small in size and so may have been designed for personal use. Although interpretations vary considerably, many of these human or semi-human sculptures have ritualistic or totemic significance, reflecting the mythology and/or religious beliefs of their tribes and societies.

(5) Animal Figures

Probably the most common subject in Stone Age sculpture, animals were depicted in a variety of styles, reflecting their importance in the diet and lifestyle of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, as well as their symbolic or totemic status in the religious beliefs of the time. Some spectacular examples include the Swimming Reindeer (c.11,000 BCE) carved from a mammoth tusk; the silver Iranian statuette known as Kneeling Bull with Vessel (c.3000 BCE); the limestone Lioness Demon (c.2900 BCE) ornamented with lapis lazuli; the gold figurine known as the Bull of Maikop (c.2500 BCE), among many others.

NOTE: Another important form of plastic art which emerged during the Stone Age is ancient pottery. For the world's oldest example, see: Xianrendong Cave Pottery (c.18,000 BCE).

History of Prehistoric Sculpture

Paleolithic Sculpture

Venus of Berekhat Ram (230,000 - 700,000 BCE)
Believed to be the world's oldest known carving in the history of sculpture, it was unearthed on the Golan in 1981, by archeologist N. Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Its reputation was significantly reinforced following the excavation of the Moroccan Venus of Tan-Tan.

Venus of Tan-Tan (200,000 - 500,000 BCE)
The second humanoid figure to emerge from the pre-Homo sapiens era of the Lower Paleolithic, it may have been sculpted by an Acheulian culture artist living on the main migratory route from Asia to western Europe, some of whose family ancestors may have belonged to the enterprising and technically advanced races from south-east Asia.

Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (c.38,000 BCE)
One of two human figures located in the caves of the Altmuhl valley in southwestern Germany. Fragments of the Aurignacian period carving were first found in 1939 by archaeologist Robert Wetzel, but it was only in 1997 and 1998, when the head was connected, that it was fully assembled. It is considered to be the oldest known anthropomorphic animal carving in the world. See: Aurignacian Art (40,000-25,000 BCE).

Venus of Hohle Fels (38,000-33,000 BCE)
The oldest known sculpture of a female figure, this ivory carving (also called the Venus of Schelklingen) is one of many artifacts discovered in the general vicinity of the Hohlenstein mountain in the Swabian Jura.

Ivory Carvings Vogelherd Cave (Swabian Jura) (33,000 BCE)
These ancient sculptures include the oldest known animal carving (woolly mammoth), plus the oldest known 3-D representations of lions and horses. In addition to the Vogelherd excavation, prehistoric finds have occurred at Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geißenklosterle and Hohle Fels - most conducted by archeologists from the University of Tubingen.

Venus of Galgenberg (also called the Stratzing Figurine) (c.30,000 BCE)
Found in pieces at a hunter-gatherer camp site in Lower Austria, this tiny green serpentine figurine displays the typically distinct female genitalia. It is the oldest item of prehistoric plastic art ever found in Austria.

Venus of Dolni Vestonice (c.26,000 - 24,000 BCE)
Discovered in 1926 at a Paleolithic settlement site in the Moravian basin, near Brno, this 4-inch figurine dates from the late Aurignacian/ early Gravettian culture, and is the oldest known ceramic figure known to archeology.

Venus of Monpazier (c.25,000 BCE)
Found in a field in 1970, this green steatite Venus figurine displays the typically enlarged buttocks, belly and vulva. It is the oldest known piece of prehistoric plastic art found in France.

Venus of Willendorf (c.25,000 BCE)
One of the most famous steatopygian Venus figurines of the Upper Paleolithic, this graphic carving, with its huge hanging breasts, extended abdomen and exaggerated buttocks was discovered in 1908, near the Austrian town of Krems. See: Gravettian Art (25,000-20,000 BCE).

Venus of Savignano (c.24,000 BCE)
Italy's most famous prehistoric figurine, the Venus of Savignano is sculpted from a single block of greenish-yellow serpentine stone.

Venus of Moravany (c.24,000 - 22,000 BCE)
Found in 1938 near Piestany, in Slovakia, this bone carving is about 3-inches tall and resides at the Bratislava Castle museum.

Venus of Laussel (c.23,000 BCE)
Located in 1911, not far from the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, this bas-relief of a naked woman, approximately 18-inches in height, is lightly coloured with red ochre. Occupying a ceremonial area of the rock shelter where it was discovered, the figure holds a bison horn in her right hand which contains 13 notches - perhaps signifying the number of menstrual cycles in one year. It is part of the permanent collection of the Musee d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux.

Salmon of Abri du Poisson Cave (c.23,000 BCE)
Another early relief sculpture from the Gravettian culture, located near Les Eyzies de Tayac, Perigord, in the French Dordogne, it consists of a 3-foot long, bas-relief carving of an Atlantic salmon (Salmon Salar). It is the only known sculpture of a fish from the Paleolithic era.

Venus of Brassempouy (c.23,000 BCE)
The facial detail of this 1.5-inch mammoth bone carving of a female head, makes it the first known example of prehistoric portrait art. Sculpted during the Gravettian Period, it was unearthed in 1892, at the Brassempouy Rock Shelter in southwest France.

Venus of Lespugue (c.23,000 BCE)
Found in 1922, in the prehistoric rock shelter of Les Rideaux, near the village of Lespugue in the Haute Garonne region of France, this 6-inch ivory statuette is a highly stylized rendering. Its pendulous breasts, exaggerated buttocks and thighs are almost a caricature of the typical Venus shape. It currently resides in the Musee de l'Homme, Paris.

Venus of Kostenky (Mammoth Bone) (c.22,000 BCE)
One of a host of artifacts excavated at the Paleolithic settlement of Kostenky, it is the oldest known example of prehistoric Russian sculpture.

Venus of Gagarino (c.20,000 BCE)
Carved from volcanic rock, the 2-inch Gagarino Venus was unearthed in 1926 close to the Don River in southern Russia. It was excavated from a Stone Age settlement, along with numerous prehistoric artifacts, tools and animal bones.

Avdeevo Venuses (c.20,000 BCE)
Series of ivory figurines carved in the Kostenky-Gagarino tradition, found near Kursk in central Russia. Avdeevo artists tended to produce venus figures with less obesity and less exaggeration of the genitalia.

Mal'ta Venuses (c.20,000 BCE)
The oldest known carvings ever found in Siberia, discovered at Usol'ye near Lake Baikal in Russia. Made from mammoth ivory, or reindeer antler, they have some of the forms associated with European Venuses. They are part of the permanent collection at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Zaraysk Venuses (c.20,000 BCE)
Ivory figurines in the Avdeevo style from the Moscow oblast. The Zaraysk site is also famous for its Gravettian ivory of a bison.

Roc-de-Sers Cave Engravings (c.17,200 BCE)
Roc de Sers is the benchmark for Solutrean prehistoric sculpture, especially regarding artistic form and technique. It is famous for its fourteen sculpted, engraved and painted limestone blocks, decorated with fifty rock engravings and low-reliefs of animals. See: Solutrean Art (20,000-15,000 BCE).

Cap Blanc Frieze (15,000 BCE)
The most important example of Magdalenian stonework, the 13-metre long limestone frieze of relief sculpture at Cap Blanc includes figures of horses, bison and deer, some of which are up to 7 feet long. The cave was also the site of a well preserved grave of a Magdalenian girl, whose skeleton is now in the Field Museum, Chicago.

Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BCE)
Rare Magdalenian-era venus figurine from Bryansk oblast southwest of Moscow. It is quite unlike the Kostenky-Avdeevo-Gagarino statuettes, and instead resembles the French Venus Impudique (14,000 BCE).

Tuc d'Audoubert Bison (c.13,500 BCE)
High-relief clay sculptures of a male and a female bison, found in 1912, deep in the underground Magdalenian rock shelter of Tuc d'Audoubert in southern France. Debris excavated from the immediate vicinity of the relief, suggests the cavern functioned like a 'artist workshop'.

Venus of Engen (Petersfels) (c.13,000 BCE)
Figurine with a close resemblance to the Venus of Monruz (see below). Also carved from jet, a type of semi-precious lignite, the Engen work was found some 70 miles from the Monruz, but is 3000 years older. See: Magdalenian Art (15,000-10,000 BCE).

The Swimming Reindeer (c.11,000 BCE)
Late Ice Age French sculpture of two swimming reindeer, now in the British Museum, London. It is regarded as the oldest work of art in any British museum.

Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel (c.10,000 BCE)
Magdalenian carving, in the form of a black jet pendant, of a stylized human figure, measuring roughly 1-inch in height. It was unearthed in 1991 in Neuchatel, Switzerland.

For famous works of rock art created during the Lower, Middle and Upper Paleolithic, see: Cave Painting 30,000-10,000 BCE and Petroglyphs (290,000-4,000 BCE).

Mesolithic Sculpture

Ain Sakhri Lovers (c.9000 BCE)
A masterpiece of Mesolithic art, this semi-abstract phallic sculpture (reminiscent of Brancusi's The Kiss) was unearthed in one of the Ain Sakhri caves near Bethlehem. Listed in the BBC TV series History of the World in 100 Objects.

Gobekli Tepe Naked Woman (c.9000 BCE)
Bas-relief sculpture of a nude woman in a crouched position, located among debris at the hugely important archeological site of Gobekli Tepe (near Edessa in southeastern Turkey) - the oldest known religious structure made by man.

Shigir Idol (c.7500 BCE)
The oldest known wood carving in the world, this Russian carving was unearthed in 1890, in the peat bog of Shigir, not far from Yekaterinburg in the Middle Urals.

Greek Reclining Female Figurine (c.6000 BCE)
This unusually positioned anthropomorphic figure from the Greek Neolithic may depict a female goddess, in the style of other prehistoric Balkan sculptures. Its coffee-bean eyes, for instance, is reminiscent of the Romanian Cucuteni culture (4500-3000 BCE). Now resides in the Archeological Museum, Volos.
For a comparison, see antique Greek Sculpture.

The Enthroned Goddess of Catal Huyuk (c.6000 BCE)
Terracotta clay sculpture of a naked Mother Goddess figure about to give birth while seated on a throne with leopard-armrests. Unearthed in 1961, in Anatolia, south-central Turkey, it was one of many treasures of Neolithic art discovered at the major archeological site of Catalhoyuk, whose complex ritualistic significance continues to baffle experts.

Vidovdanka (5500-4700 BCE)
Terracotta figurine excavated among Mesolithic debris at Vinca-Belo Brdo, near Belgrade, Serbia, in 1930. Now in the National Museum of Serbia. See also: the Terracotta Army, created during the period of Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE).

Neolithic Sculpture

Fish God of Lepenski Vir (5000 BCE)
One of numerous therianthropic sculptures carved from round sandstone cobbles, from the Serbian Lepenski Vir Ib settlement, with a wide, fish-like mouth. Now in the National Museum, Belgrade.

Thinker of Cernavoda ('Ganditorul') (c.5000 BCE)
Hamangia-culture terracotta sculpture, discovered in 1956 along with numerous similar, but headless, figurines (including the Sitting Woman of Cernavoda) in a Neolithic necropolis in the lower Danube region. Considered to be one of the greatest sculptures ever, it resides in the National History Museum, Bucharest.

Greek Female Figurine (c.4250 BCE)
A famous Venus-style marble statuette (8-inches tall) from the Greek Neolithic. Her pendant breasts, exaggerated buttocks and thighs are typical of earlier Paleolithic Venus figurines, and suggest she may have been a fertility symbol. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. For comparative purposes, see: Sculpture from Ancient Greece.

Egyptian Female Figurine (c.3700 BCE)
This 4-inch tall hippopotamus bone and lapis lazuli figure, dating to the Naquada I period (4000-3500 BCE), may have been a fertility symbol, designed as a work of funerary or tomb art, to serve as an aid to rebirth in the afterlife. For a comparison with other artworks from Africa, see: African Sculture.

Egyptian Mourning Figurine (c.3500 BCE)
Composed of ochre-painted terracotta, this minimalist humanoid sculpture from the Naquada II era (3500-3100 BCE) was excavated from Burial 2 at el-Mamariya, Egypt. It now resides at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York. For more about art in ancient Egypt, see: Egyptian Sculture.

Priest-King of Mesopotamia (c.3300 BCE)
A simple representation of a royal figure, this 12-inch limestone statue from the Uruk period of ancient Iraq is characteristic of many Mesopotamian King-like images. Now in the Louvre, Paris. See: Mesopotamian art (4500-539 BCE).

Sleeping Lady of Malta (3100 BCE)
An iconic symbol of the Maltese prehistoric Temple Period (4100-2500 BCE), this recumbent terracotta figure - probably a Mother-Goddess - was excavated from the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni, a Neolithic underground burial centre.

Kneeling Bull with Vessel (c.3000 BCE)
One of the oldest masterpieces of silver metalwork, it was crafted by Mesopotamian silversmiths during the Proto-Elamite Period. Comprised of a naturalist head and front hooves of an ox, with a blank lower half, decorated with abstract incised patterns. Probably based on a mythological theme. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lioness Demon (c.2900 BCE)
This 3-inch Iranian limestone leonine figure from the Proto-Elamite Period may represent the mythological Inanna, Goddess of Love and War. May even have served as a model for, or replica of, a larger sculpture. When sculpted, it would have been ornamented with lapis lazuli.

Ram in a Thicket (c.2500 BCE)
One of the most famous pieces of Mesopotamian sculpture (there are 2 actual versions). Although named after a Biblical passage in the Old Testament, this animal figure depicts a goat, rather than a sheep, and invokes the ancient Mesopotamian myth that a goat standing on its hind legs signifies the fertility of the land. Excavated from the Great Death Pit at Ur, the figure is made from red limestone and shell, layered with gold-leaf copper and lapis lazuli. Now in the British Museum, London; its sister-work resides in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

Bull of Maikop (c.2500 BCE)
One of four gold and silver bulls excavated from a Neolithic royal burial mound near Maikop in the North Caucasus area of Russia. Stylistically reminiscent of plastic art from Mesopotamia and Sumeria - see for instance the Proto-Elamite Kneeling Bull with Vessel (above) - this 3-inch treasure now resides in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro (c.2500 BCE)
This extraordinarily 'modern' piece of early Indian sculpture is a masterpiece of Harappan-culture bronze sculpture from the Indus Valley Civilization in India. It depicts a girl dressed only in an assortment of arm bracelets and bangles, whose sassy pose suggests she is about to start dancing. Now in the National Museum of Art in New Delhi.

Imdugud Between Two Stags (c.2500 BCE)
Like the Ram in the Thicket, this relief sculpture made from copper, was discovered in the city-state of Ur at Tell al-Ubaid. Originally set in stone above the doorway of the temple of Ninhursag, it depicts the lion-headed eagle Imdugud flanked by two mythological stags, whose presence and meaning remains unclear.


• For more about ancient arts, see Bronze Age Art (c.3500-1100 BCE) and Iron Age Art (c.1100-200 BCE).
• For the chronological evolution of painting and sculpture, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For information about painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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