Zaraysk Venuses (c.20,000 BCE)
For the earliest carvings, see: Oldest Stone Age Art.
This is the fifth of the venus figurines that make up the Russian school of prehistoric sculpture which emerged during the final phase of Gravettian art, around 20,000 BCE. The first example is the Venus of Kostenky from Voronezh; two other nearby examples are the Venus of Gagarino (Lipetsk) and the Avdeevo Venuses (Kursk); the most distant ones are the Mal'ta Venuses (Irkutsk) from Siberia. Zaraysk (or Zaraisk) is an important Paleolithic site which dates back to about 22,000 BCE, about the time of the Last Glacial Maximum of the Ice Age. The site's most famous item of prehistoric art is the Zaraysk Venus (or rather venuses - since there are two figurines not one, though the second is unfinished). Neither has been dated directly, but they are believed to have been carved about 20,000 BCE, which makes them contemporaneous with Kostenky, Gagarino and Avdeevo, and slightly later than other archetypal European figurines, like the Venus of Willendorf (Lower Austria). In addition, Zaraysk is noted for another piece of Stone Age art, a remarkably lifelike ivory carving of a bison, dating to the same period as the figurines. To see how the sculpture at Zaraysk fits into the general evolution of Paleolithic culture, please see Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
The town of Zaraysk is situated on the right bank of the Osyotr River, some 160 kilometres (100 miles) southeast of Moscow. The archeological site is located just outside the walls of Zaraysk's medieval fortress. It has been excavated since 1995 by a team from the Russian Academy of Sciences, led by archeologists Hizri Amirkhanov and Sergey Lev. This team has unearthed several examples of ancient mobiliary art, including the bison, in 2002, and the pair of figurines, in 2005.
The two venus figurines were found carefully buried in separate storage pits, in the centre of a Kostenky-style Ice Age habitation, next to a series of hollowed-out earth-dwellings. Each statuette had been covered by a large mammoth bone, and lay on a deposit of red ochre, one of the most common colour pigments of the time. The first figure was found whole, but in a poorly preserved state; the second was found in a better preserved condition, but damaged and incomplete. Both venuses resembled those discovered at Avdeevo, near Kursk to the south-west.
European venus figurines had a number of typical features. (1) All depicted female nudes. (2) They tended to be excessively obese, especially around the hips. See, for instance, the Venus of Lespugue (c.23,000 BCE). (3) They emphasized the unique characteristics of the female, who was often depicted as pregnant: breasts were huge but drooping; buttocks were large and protruding; and the belly was typically swollen. See the Venus of Moravany (24,000 BCE). (4) Genitalia were frequently exaggerated - sometimes to the point of caricature. See, for example, the vulva of the Venus of Monpazier (c.25,000 BCE). (5) Their faces were featureless. See, for instance, the Venus of Dolni Vestonice (26,000 BCE).
In contrast, Russian venuses tend to be thinner and less voluptuous. Some even have flat stomachs and buttocks. Also, neither their genitalia nor their general female characteristics are exaggerated. Their faces have features (eyes, nose, mouth) at least half the time. Their 'nudity' is not convincing, and many contain markings suggestive of clothes. Finally, they include the occasional male venus or zoomorphic figure. Generally speaking, the Gagarino and Kostenky venuses tend to be more obese - that is, less 'Russian' and more 'European' than the Avdeevo and Mal'ta figures. (Note: for a different sculptural idiom altogether, see the Magdalenian Venus of Eliseevichi.)
The completed figurine (Venus 1), which was found the day before the other, measures about 17 centimetres (7 inches) in height, and 4.5 centimetres at its widest point (hips). Its unfinished sister (Venus 2) is less than half as tall and two-thirds the width.
Venus 1 (four views of which are pictured left) has some obesity around the middle, but she is stocky rather than voluptuous, and there are no signs of any exaggeration of genitalia or any other female characteristics. The legs are clearly defined and depicted as standing apart. Her head has no facial features, but markings are suggestive of a hair-style or possibly a cap. In short, she has the non-obese shape of the Russian school, with elements of both the Kostenky and Avdeevo styles.
The famous Zaraysk bison sculpture was discovered in 2002, on a type of raised stage at the bottom of a small storage pit. Carved from a mammoth tusk, it measures about 10 centimetres (4 inches) in length and, according to Amirkhanov, its dimensions coincide perfectly with those of an adult bison. It is rendered in a true-to-life style, with added engravings showing mane and beard. For a comparison with European sculptures of animals, please see: Ivory Carvings of the Swabian Jura (Germany).
In addition to those cited above, see the following European venus figurines.
For more about parietal art, see: Cave Painting.
For more about softstone venuses, see: Stone Sculpture.
For more carving from Russia, see: Russian Art (22,000 BCE-present).
For more information about Russian prehistoric sculpture, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE