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Venus Figurine and the Origin of Ceramic Technology.

Dolni Vestonice was once a thriving camp inhabited during the Palaeolithic period approximately 30,000 years ago. Today it is a prominent archaeological site located near the modern City of Brno in the Czech Republic.

Dolni Vestonice is famous for the rich deposit of archaeological evidence, providing us with an insight into a culture of Ice-Age people in central Europe. It shows how people constructed their huts of mammoth bones, the technology they used, as well as burial practices and the making of art – some of the earliest examples of symbolic representation.

The site includes the remnants of several huts, one of which has the remains of one of the earliest kilns ever discovered. The kiln, used for baking clay objects, is remarkable for that time. It wasn’t for another 15,000 years that people in faraway Japan would shape clay and turn it into ceramic pots – the first containers made out of clay.

The kiln at Dolni Vestonice had glowing coals that were covered by a dome made of earth. The floor of the hut around the kiln was covered with hundreds of ceramic figurines and their fragments, depicting humans and numerous animals. These are the first examples of ceramic artefacts ever found and they date to between 28,000 and 24,000 years ago.

One of the most striking and almost complete figurines became known as the Venus of Dolni Vestonice. It is 11cm high and depicts a voluptuous nude female figure – it is thought to be a symbol of fertility or possibly an idol or ‘goddess’. This Venus found a prominent place in textbooks and coffee-table books and also in popular imagination – showing how our distant ancestors reflected on themselves through pictorial representation and how they invented the art, as we know it.

Other stylised female figurines have also been found at the site, some more lifelike than others, several carved in animal bone or ivory. Many animal clay figurines are quite naturalistic and depict large Ice Age animals including mammoth, rhinoceros, bear and lion.

Over the years there has been much debate about the purpose and meaning of these figurines. They were made with considerable artistic skill and attention to detail. Yet, most figurines were destroyed. Was it a result of crude firing technology or perhaps intentional outcome? Figurines crafted from clay mixed with powdered bone show evidence of fractures acquired during the firing process. It is possible that baking the wet-clay animals, without letting them dry first, made them explode or fracture in the kiln.

It has been suggested that the figurines had a magical or ritual significance. We see them as pieces of art, but it is possible that, for the people thousands of years ago, it was the actual process of making and firing that was actually more important than the final product.

In the 1970s the Australian Museum acquired a dozen cast replicas of figurines form Dolni Vestonice along with other examples of similar representations from European archaeological sites. Although replicas are only a modest substitute for the real objects, they provide some insight into an extraordinary evidence of culture of early humans.

Researched by Charlotte Kowalski