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
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
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.
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