Earliest figurative art: Aurignacian statuettes

The earliest known sculptures in the world are a set of about 50 ivory figurines discovered in four caves of Swabian Jura: Vogelherd, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geißenklösterle, and Hohle Fels. Chronologically, all the figurines are from the Aurignacian period, with the oldest being the therianthrope (half man, half animal) from Hohlenstein-Stadel, aka Löwenmensch or Lion man, dated around 41,000–39,000 BP (img. 1.1). Geographically, “by far the majority of the figurines come from Vogelherd, followed by Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels (with four figurines each) and finally Hohlenstein-Stadel with its recently newly refitted and completed lion man” (Floss 2015). Topically, the figurines represent therianthropes, animals, and a human.

Therianthropes

Löwenmensch from Hohlenstein-Stadel (img. 1.1) is an impressive work of art even in its incomplete form (where the last discovered pieces were added as recently as in 2013). The figurine is 31 cm tall and is executed with a high level of artistic skill. The meaning of this half-man-half-animal figurine is unknown: it may represent the view of the world where everything (both people and nature) has the same essence, it may be a shaman wearing an animal mask or skin, etc.

1.2. Therianthrope (presumably), aka Adorant, ivory, height 38 mm, 35,000–32,000 BP, found in Geißenklösterle, now in Württemberg Landesmuseum (Don’s maps). 1.3. Therianthrope, ivory, height 25.5 mm, 33,000–31,000 BP, found in Hohle Fels (Hussain and Floss 2015). 1.4. An approximate comparison of proportions of the therianthrope figurines (based on Hussain and Floss 2015).

Whichever is true, the tradition of depicting therianthropes spans geographic regions and time. A 4-cm-tall carved figurine dated 35,000–32,000 BP was found in Geißenklösterle (img. 1.2). It represents an anthropomorphic figure with raised hands, hence, the figurine was given a name of ‘adorant’. The figure has a part resembling a tail (lower left), which leads some researchers to attributing this figure to therianthropes. Yet another, an even smaller therianthrope figurine, only 2.5 cm tall, was discovered in Hohle Fels and is dated 33,000–31,000 BP (img. 1.3). Img. 1.4 gives an idea of relative sizes of the three therianthrope figurines discovered in the caves of Swabian Jura.

Animals

Now, let’s look at this small, 4.8 cm in length, ivory statuette of a horse (img. 2.1). What do we see? A somewhat simplified, yet realistic side view of the animal with a detailed head and missing legs. The figurine is very well executed and has balanced proportions. Looks like the surface of the figurine used to be polished but has aged considerably.

2.1. Horse from Vogelherd, length 4.8 cm, now in Museum der Universität Tübingen (Floss 2015, Wikimedia​).

What do we feel when looking at this figurine? As for us, we feel a sense of contentment and joy. Such a tiny, yet fine piece of art, which also seems quite old. We want to touch this statuette, hold it in our hands, rub its surface with our fingers.

What is this figurine? It is one of the finds from Vogelherd in Swabian Jura, where a number of ivory figurines were discovered with an approximate age of around 35,000 BP. So, similarly to the therianthropes discussed above, this is one of the world’s earliest known figurines.

2.2. Mammoth from Vogelhed, length 5 cm, now in Museum der Universität Tübingen (Wikimedia). 2.3. Mammoths, figurines 1–4 and 6 from Vogelherd, figurine 5 from Geißenklösterle (Hussain and Floss 2015).
2.4. Lion (or bear) from Vogelhed, length 6.8 cm, now in Museum der Universität Tübingen (Wikimedia). 2.5. Lions from Vogelherd (Hussain and Floss 2015).

A number of other animal figurines were discovered in the caves of Swabian Jura with mammoths (imgs. 2.2–2.3) and lions (imgs. 2.4–2.5) being the most common ones. Among the figurines there is even one bird (img. 2.6) and one fish (img. 2.7). All figurines are quite tiny (img. 2.8).

“The carvings have harmonious and rounded shapes and smooth surfaces, providing not only a visual appeal, but a tactile interest as well. The figurines have a very individual character, as if they belonged to and/or had been created by distinct persons.” (Floss 2015)

2.6. Water bird from Hohle Fels, length 4.7 cm, now in Urgeschichtliches Museum (Floss 2015). 2.7. Fish from Vogelherd, now in Museum der Universität Tübingen (Wikimedia). 2.8. An indication of the figurines’ size (Reutlinger General-Anzeiger).

Venuses

Let’s also take a look at this ivory statuette of a woman, 6 cm tall, and describe what we see (imgs. 3.1–3.2). It is a quite roughly carved figurine of disproportionate forms: exaggerated breast and vulva, wide shoulders and hips, short arms and legs, and, strikingly, no head. Instead of a head, there is a ring to hang the statuette as a pendant or bead. The figurine is covered with carved parallel lines.

Talking about emotions, this figurine makes us feel surprised, frustrated/angry (where is the head?), and even disgusted. We do not want to spend much time looking at it and studying it (before we discover its historical context).

As for the context, this is the earliest known statuette of a human dated at least 35,000 BP. It is a contemporary of the therianthropes and animals discussed above and was also found in the caves of Swabian Jura, specifically, in Hohle Fels (hence, its name).

3.3. Venus of Galgenberg, aka Fanny, height 7.2 cm, ca. 32,000 BP, now in the Natural History Museum Vienna (Don’s maps).

The only other Venus figurine from the Aurignacian is the Venus of Galgenberg, dated ca. 32,000 BP (img. 3.3). It is made of amphibolite, is 7.2 cm tall and represents a female figure in motion. “The posture resembles a dance movement and earned the figure the name ‘Fanny’ after Fanny Elssler, Austria’s prima ballerina at the time of the excavations in 1988.” (Cook 2013)

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