Venus of Kostenky
Discovery, Dating, Characteristics of Russian Prehistoric Carving.

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Figure 1
The Ivory Venus of Kostenky
(30,000 BCE)
Carved from Mammoth bone.
The oldest art found in Russia.

Figure 2
The Limestone Venus of Kostenky
(c.20,000 BCE)

Venus of Kostenky (c.22,000 BCE)


Discovery and Dating
Other European Venus Figurines
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The Venus of Kostenky (Kostienki) is among the oldest known examples of prehistoric sculpture in Russia. It is one of a series of European venus figurines that proliferated during the period of Gravettian art (c.25,000-20,000 BCE). In fact, the term "Venus of Kostensky" is a misnomer, since - like the "Venus of Gagarino", the "Avdeevo Venuses", the "Mal'ta Venuses" and the "Zaraysk Venuses" - it refers to a group of venuses, in this case found at Kostenky, in the Don Region. The most famous Kostenky venus is the ivory carving known as "number 3 from Kostienki 1" (see figure 1), which has been indirectly dated to about 22,000 BCE. It is part of the Paleolithic art collection of the Hermitage Museum, in Saint-Petersburg. Though less famous, a second mammoth ivory figurine from the same site (see figure 3), is considered to be more representative of the Kostenky-Avdeevo-Gagarino style.

As well as Kostenky, items of mobiliary art and cave art have been found at many other Russian and Ukrainian archeological sites, including: Amvrossievka, Apiantcha, Avdeevo, Bez'imyannyi, Borchtchevo, Brynzeny, Dobranitchevka, Ubovaya Balka, Eliseevichi/Yeliseevichi, Gagarino Gontzy, Ignatievskaya, Ilskaya, Kaistrovaya Balka, Khoylevo, Kievo-Kirillovskaya, Klimaoutzy, Klinetz, Kosseoutzy, Lissitchniki, Mal'ta, Mejiritch, Mezin, Molodova, Murakovka, Novgorod Severskyi, Puchkari, Rogalik, Smelobskaya, Starye Duruitory, Sungir, Suponevo, Timonovka and Yudinovo, to name but a few. See also the Kapova Cave Paintings (12,500 BCE) in the Shulgan-Tash Preserve, in the Urals.

For more about the chronology of Stone Age art from European/Eurasian Russia, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

For the complete picture, see: Russian Art (c.22,000 BCE - 1920).

Figure 3
Another mammoth ivory venus
from Kostenky. (c.20,000 BCE)

For more examples of
Stone Age ivories, see:
Ivory Carvings, Swabian Jura.

Discovery and Dating

Located on the western bank of the Don River, in the Khokholsky District of the Voronezh region in Russia, Kostenky (Kostienki) does not comprise a single archeological site but a group of about 20 different sites clustered around the villages of Kostenky and Borshevo. Occupied by Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic, scholars believe that they were displaced around 30,000 BCE by the first wave of "modern man", a view supported by the fact that the earliest directly-dated modern human remains from Kostenky date to about 30,000 BCE. At any rate, from then on, Kostenky was repeatedly occupied by hunter-gatherers during the Gravettian or "Willendorf-Kostenki" culture, and scholars believe it was modern man who created the earliest art of the area. In 2009, archeologists uncovered the remains of a 23-year old male hunter-gatherer who lived in 28,000 BCE. He was found lying in a crouched position, covered with red ochre, although whether the pigment was used for cave art or merely body painting or face painting, is unknown. In addition, since the war, a number of ivory carvings and examples of soft stone sculpture have been discovered - notably some half a dozen figurines - as well as artifacts, tools, fossils and other ancient materials.

No direct dating has been done on the ivory Venus of Kostenky (fig 1), catalogued by archeologist Zoya A. Abramova as "number 3 from Kostienki 1", or indeed on any of the other Kostenky venuses, but stylistic comparisons with figurines at Avdeevo, Gagarino and Mal'ta indicate that it was carved around 22,000 BCE, making it the oldest Stone Age art in Russia. Some scholars believe it is older - perhaps as old as 30,000 BCE, coincident with the first wave of modern man - but the scientific evidence is lacking.

For a later Russian carving from the Magdalenian period, please see the Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BCE). For other contemporaneous prehistoric art from the Russian interior, see: Amur River Pottery (from 14,300 BCE).


Ivory Venus

Twenty eight centimetres in height (11 inches), the ivory Venus of Kostenky (fig 1) is carved from mammoth tusk and has a number of features typical of most Aurignacian and Gravettian venus statuettes: a swollen belly, enlarged buttocks, heavy, drooping breasts and vulva clearly indicated. From behind, she appears to be wearing a fringe or girdle. However, compared to the caricature-type figurines, like the Venus of Willendorf (25,000 BCE) or the Venus of Gagarino (20,000 BCE), its overall appearance is relatively naturalistic. The general impression is of a tall, pregnant, perhaps older woman, without any of the characteristic exaggeration of size or genitalia. Because it is much more true-to-life than many of its counterparts, it does not fit the usual image of a fertility symbol. Instead, one almost feels that the sculptor was trying to portray a real person.

Russia is also the home of the Shigir Idol (7,500 BCE), the world's oldest wood carving, which was unearthed in 1890 from a peat bog in the Urals.

Limestone Venus

Perhaps the most famous of the Kostenky (kostienki) statuettes after the ivory figurine (figure 1), is the fragment known as the "limestone Venus of Kostenky" (figure 2). This stone sculpture - of which, sadly, only a fragment remains - was discovered in 1988. Consisting of trunk and upper thighs only, it is 13 centimetres high (5.5 inches) and noted for the intricate bracelets on the wrists, which are joined together at the front rather like a pair of handcuffs.

Another ivory carving discovered at Kostenky (see figure 3) is about 10 centimetres (4 inches) in height, and exhibits the usual exaggerated breasts and belly. Its head, lacking in any facial features, is bent towards the chest, while its braceleted arms are pressed into the body with hands on the belly. The head is engraved with a braid-like pattern suggesting a hair style, or cap. The neck is encircled with a plait, resembling a halter-neck style dress fastening, tied up at the back.

Other Kostenky venuses include one of polished stone that is on display at the local Voronezh Museum, and a stick-like male venus which is on display at the Hermitage.

Note: For details of another ancient male figure, found in Germany, please see: Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BCE).

Other European Venus Figurines

Venus figurines are believed to have been a type of fertility symbol exalting the magic of childbirth. This extraordinary style of rock art, of which some 100 examples have been found across Europe, typically depicts an obese female with huge breasts, exaggerated buttocks and genitalia. The style first emerged during the era of Aurignacian art, before multiplying during the Gravettian only to disappear during the era of Magdalenian art. The most famous venus figurines include: the German "Venus of Hohle Fels" (ivory), the Austrian 'dancing' Venus of Galgenberg (also known as the Stratzing Figurine), the Czech "Venus of Dolni Vestonice" (baked clay), the Lower Austrian "Venus of Willendorf" (limestone), the Italian "Venus of Savignano" (serpentine), the Slovakian "Venus of Moravany" (ivory), the Russian "Venus of Mal'ta" (ivory), and the French statuettes known as the "Venus of Monpazier" (limonite), the "Venus of Brassempouy" (ivory), the bas-relief Venus of Laussel, and the "Venus of Lespugue" (ivory). Late Magdalenian venuses include the German Venus of Engen (13,000 BCE) - the "Petersfels Venus" - and the similar Swiss Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel (c.10,000 BCE), the last of the Paleolithic female figurines.

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For the earliest cultural markings, see: Cupule Art. For the earliest forms of carving, see the Venus of Berekhat Ram (Golan) and the Venus of Tan-Tan (Morocco), both from the Acheulean culture of the Lower/Middle Paleolithic and entirely unconnected with later European venus figures. For the earliest cave art, see the El Castillo cave paintings in Spain, dating from 39,000 BCE.

• For more about Stone Age sculpture in Russia, see: Homepage.

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