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 -- 30,000 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
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're
interested in the way inventive minds work.
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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