VIENNA (AFP) — Plump and 25,000 years old, this lady remains a mystery even after 100 years in the limelight.
The Venus of Willendorf, a small ochre-coloured figurine from the Paleolithic period, takes her name from the village in northern Austria where she was excavated on August 7, 1908 by three Austrian paleontologists.
"This was the first statuette (from this period) that had such detailed features and it was also the first statuette to be discovered at the time on an archeological site," says Walpurga Antl-Weiser, head of the prehistory section at Vienna's Natural History Museum.
On the 100th anniversary of her excavation, this Venus is being honoured with a special exhibition at the museum, alongside other artefacts from the same period.
Carved from oolitic limestone, she is a round woman, standing with her arms resting on her breasts and belly, her bowed head hiding her face but showing off elaborate hair.
"This statue is really remarkable and when you look at the way she was carved, the way the muscles and different parts of the body are rendered, you can tell the sculptor used a model," says Antl-Weiser.
This Venus "resulted from perfect observation of the human body, but she was also arranged to make her curves more harmonious," she adds.
The first and only statuette of her kind before the French Venus of Lespugue and the Russian Venus of Kostienki joined her two decades later, the lady from Willendorf can still attract crowds.
"I think a lot of visitors come to the museum just to see the Venus," says Antl-Weiser.
But where she came from and whether she represented a goddess or women's elevated place in society remains a mystery.
"We don't think she represented prehistoric women," says Antl-Weiser.
"She's a rather older woman, one who has certainly already had children," she explains.
"Moreover, we can't prove that women played a predominant role during this period and that these female statuettes honoured them: there are many other statuettes (from that period) representing animals, part-humans and part-animals or assexual human beings."
Rather than being a goddess, the Venus of Willendorf could have been part of a ritual or a belief shared by several tribes over 20,000 years ago.
Although excavated at opposite ends of the continent, the French and Russian Venuses are similar in form to their Austrian sister.
"They could have been expressions of a single belief that spread through Europe," says Antl-Weiser.
But this does not explain where the lady from Willendorf came from.
While other artefacts and statuettes were excavated near the same village in Lower Austria, no traces remain of the rock out of which she was carved.
Antl-Weiser concludes: "From that point of view, either the Venus was brought here, or the rock fragments disappeared when a railroad was built there in the 19th century."
The exhibition runs to February 1.
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