Sponsored by: Archaeological Institute of America
Female figurines are among the most enigmatic and alluring art objects from the Palaeolithic period. Over the 120 years that have followed their discovery, this diverse body of objects has been subjected to a several phases of interpretation, each of which has arguably reflected the cultural preoccupations of the modern viewer more than the intentions of the prehistoric artist. At the time of their discovery in the late 19th Century, sexuality and fertility went virtually ignored, eclipsed by evolutionist concerns with the racial hierarchies. Randall White has demonstrated that the term “Venus figurine” is a direct reference to the “Hottentot Venus” Sartje Baartman and reflects the primitivist attitudes toward both Palaeolithic people and contemporary hunter-gatherers that were dominant in the 1890s. More recently, with the discovery of the “Hohle Fels Venus” in Germany in 2009, news headlines reflected an entirely different cultural preoccupation, branding the newfound figurine a “Palaeolithic Pin-up” and “Paleo Porn.” April Nowell and Melanie Chang dismantled this interpretation in a 2014 paper, revealing it to be another reflection of current cultural preoccupations and a suite of erroneous assumptions about both the figurines and gender and sexuality in prehistory. This lecture traces the twentieth-century origins of the “Fertility Figurine,” one of the most widespread and enduring interpretations of Palaeolithic images of women. Drawing on primary sources from the era, it identifies the precise cultural moment when the interpretive gaze shifted from race to gender in the years following the First World War. As anxieties about gender roles and birth rates reached the level of obsession in Interwar France, these ancient objects were drawn into discussions of women’s “natural and eternal” obligations. Understanding prehistoric works of art requires an understanding of both Paleolithic contexts of production and the historical roots of various frameworks of interpretation, and this lecture aims to provide the audience with a detailed overview of both.
Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:
White, R. 2006. The Women of Brassempouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13(4): 251–304.
Nowell, A and M. Chang. 2014. Science, the Media, and Interpretations of Upper Palaeolithic Female Figurines. American Anthropologist 116(3): 562-577.
Reception to follow