Marija Gimbutas, in her book Language of the Goddess, mentions only one goddess figurine from what was, at the time of her writing, Czechoslovakia (pages 31-32). That figurine comes from Předmosti, in the very eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic. However, there are more, and I would like to introduce you to the one that I encountered during a visit to another part of the Czech Republic several weeks ago.
Meet what Czechs refer to as the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. There is not a lot of information about her, so I have pieced together what I can find. Said to be the oldest known fired terracotta figurine (some 29,000 years old), she was first unearthed in 1925. She was found broken into two pieces at the site of the Stone Age settlement known as Dolní Věstonice, in the southeastern part of the Czech Republic. This settlement, according to Archeo Park Pavlov, was part of the Pavlovian culture, a Stone Age culture local to the area.
As a Stone Age settlement, Dolní Věstonice was an important location for ritual, the arts, trade, and hunting. At the site, archaeologists have found a ritualised burial of three individuals, two biological males and what the scientists surmise was probably an intersexed individual. Likewise, there is evidence which indicates that some animal burials may have had ritualistic purposes. In addition, Dolní Věstonice boasted two kilns. These kilns functioned over 10,000 years before humans regularly fired ceramics for vessels and other domestic uses. Thus, scholars posit that these were used for ritual and artistic purposes. Furthermore, Dolní Věstonice was a significant trading post. One clue to this comes from the discovery of the world’s oldest known map, carved on the tusk of a mammoth. (For more, see here.) Finally, the settlement was located along the route of migratory animals and proved to be an excellent location for hunting. The presence of fossilised animals, including wolves, deer, horses, and mammoths, imply this use as does the presence of similar animals in the form of clay figurines. These figurines could point to either the site’s importance for hunting and/or its ritual significance.
The goddess figurine unearthed there is rather small, only 4.4 inches tall and about 2 inches across. Her appearance is quite similar to other goddess figurines that have been found in other parts of Central Europe. However, she was sculpted out of one piece of clay, local to the area, while the figurines nearest to her spatially and historically were often carved in stone, antler, or bone. Recent scientific investigations have found on her a fingerprint of a child or small adolescent and concluded that the holes in the top of her head probably would have held feathers or a headdress rather than herbs or flowers as others have suggested.
Overall, my understanding of the material at Archeo Park Pavlov suggests that Dolní Věstonice was an important site of ritual activity more than anything else. Part of that had to do with its location on the migratory routes of large populations of animals. The hunt was an important part of Stone Age society, which relied on it for survival. Widespread agricultural practices did not yet exist in human societies, although there is evidence of the grinding of plant materials at the site. Speaking of the site’s ritual purpose, most of the burials at the site were staged, most likely for rituals. Although it is also probable, as some conjecture, that some burials ended up together purely coincidently on account of shifting geography. However, there are too many burials there just to attribute everything to pure coincidence. These include the burials of animals together, animals and humans together, and highly ritualised burials of humans. There has also been found a significant amount of decorative items including pendants, rings, beads, headbands, and so on.
Returning to the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, who was she? Was she a representation of the Goddess? Is she the bird goddess that Marija Gimbutas so often writes about and toward which the holes in her head point? Was she a doll for a child as the fingerprint may imply? Was she part of some sort of fertility cult? Did she, as some conclude, represent an idealised body form associated with abundance in a landscape of scarcity?
While I’m glad I got to encounter her at Archeo Park Pavlov, it is likely that we will never know the answers to our questions about her. Her story has been lost to the sands of time. Whatever she was, the ideas surrounding her were strong enough to have been burnt into clay, when clay was not yet in standard use. That is a powerful legacy.
May her memory be a blessing and blessed be.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.