The Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 359:
THE DOLNI VESTONICE CERAMICS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 359.

Today, we meet a 26,000-year-old lady. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

She really cuts a remarkable figure. Her fired clay body is 4½ inches tall, with exaggerated hips and breasts. She leaves no doubt about the artist's intent. This was to be the unmistakable image of woman. Archaeologists call her the Dolni Vestonice Venus, after the Czechoslovakian site where they found her. Her 26,000-year age is astonishing. This Upper Paleolithic figurine is 14,000 years older than the first ceramic pots and jars.

The Dolni Vestonice Venus is part of the oldest known set of ceramic sculpture. She was no isolated fluke. We find two kilns on the site. They were surrounded by 7000 fired ceramic fragments. Our Stone Age ancestors weren't fooling around. They were seriously producing art objects.

They weren't yet good at firing clay. The objects were heated to 1300oF, and most of them show thermal cracks. These ceramics probably had no practical purpose. They certainly weren't made to last. What we're seeing is art for the moment. It is the strong expression of a few people who developed a technology for showing us what was in their minds.

These figures come from the Gravettian period -- 28,000 to 22,000 years ago. The first human and animal carvings were made just before this. By now, female figurines with the exaggerated sexual characteristics of the Dolni Vestonice Venus were widespread. But they were all made of carved stone, bone, or ivory -- never of fired clay. Anthropologists wonder if fertility cults made them. That would be odd, because Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers limited their populations. They didn't try to expand them. Maybe she's an aesthetic ideal -- one very strange to our tastes.

Cave painting preceded the great artistic outpouring of the Gravettian period. In that period, an astonishing range of new techniques joined cave painting. These Czech ceramics were only one of many Gravettian artistic experiments. They weren't followed by better ceramics. They just died out when the people who made them died.

What survived was the artistic impulse. Out of those artistic techniques eventually rose more utilitarian technologies. When we look at these figurines we see an expanding human vision. My favorite isn't the grotesque Venus, but the head of a lioness. If the Venus caricatures woman, the lioness instead abstracts the quality of being a beast. The lion is coolly dreamlike and lovely. The two are quite different, but together they reveal the human imagination, poised at the door of a great mental leap forward.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Vandiver, P.B., Soffer, O., Klima, B., and Svoboda, J., The Origins of Ceramic Technology at Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia. Science, Vol. 246, Nov. 24, 1989, pp. 1002-1008.

White, R., The Upper Paleolithic: A Human Revolution. 1989 Yearbook of Science and the Future (D. Calhoun et al., eds). Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1988, pp. 30-49.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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