The Pont-d’Arc Venus: Aurignacian, Gravettian or Magdalenian?
Additional observations on the age of Chauvet Cave
© Christian Züchner (2001-07-01)
In the last edition of INORA Le Guillou (2001) described a recently documented female figure of the Chauvet Cave called “The Pont-d’Arc Venus” (La Vénus du Pont-d’Arc):
“A marked pubic triangle … seems to be the heart of the representation. A clearly curved line limits the upper contour. Two lines not joint at the base show the two folds of the groin. The upper junction of these lines, on the left of the design, probably was not present on the right, as if the finish was not a concern. A second curved horizontal line, parallel to the first and just under it, divides the interior of the pubic triangle. After the making of the lines a black filling-in was added by shading and spreading pigment. This colouring is preferentially centred on the lower part of the triangle, outlining a darker zone and thus perhaps giving an impression of volume. The vulva slit, done later, is clearly indicated by a vertical line incised strongly enough to cut through both the black pigment and the yellow surface film on the rock, and thus appearing in white. … The legs, with plump thighs, finish in an point with the feet not shown. … All the upper part of the body is missing, but perhaps this was not always so. The buttocks could have been at least started, then effaced.”
He continues: “This venus is absolutely classic. Her proportions, the stylistic elements, the selection of anatomical elements shown are all characteristic of Aurignacian or Gravettian venuses, as known from the small statues of Central and Eastern Europe. In Paleolithic parietal art the Venus of Laussel seems the nearest to that of Pont-d’Arc.”
The main elements of the venus are: the extremely emphasized pubic triangle and the vulva slit encompassed by the thighs and the abdomen, the legs without feet, missing belly, trunk, breasts or other female attributes. The main interest of the artist is concentrated on the sexual and not the maternal aspect of women. The sexuality is shown in an almost vulgar clearness. The venus of Pont-d’Arc would raise severe problems, if we accept that the Chauvet Cave is an Aurignacian monument.
- The typical vulvas of Aurignacian and to some extent of Gravettian are circular, not triangular. They look much more like the hoof prints of horses than like pubic triangles.
- Despite the traditional term “vénus aurignaco-périgordiennes” no female figures from the Aurignacian period have been found up to now. All statuettes or relieves are of Gravettian age. As Naber (1974) pointed out, some of the relieves of Laussel may even belong to the Solutrean. If we accept Le Guillou’s comparison with the “Venus of Laussel”, we must accept too that some of the black paintings in Chauvet cave are younger than Aurignacian.
- The venus figures of Gravettian never stress the sexuality but always the maternity of women. Even if the pudenda are clearly indicated (e.g. Willendorf) it is done in a very discrete way, as natural part of women, not in such a vulgar clearness as in Chauvet cave. That means the venus of Pont-d’Arc does not show all the characteristics of Aurignacian and Gravettian figures as Le Guillou points out.
If we accept that the black paintings of Chauvet Cave are of Magdalenian origin as we have maintained since 1995, all problems are solved without any difficulties: there exist some representations of women presenting their sexuality which are nearly identical and well-dated to the Magdalenian:
- Angles-sur-l’Anglin: the famous three women are confined to the trunk, the pointed feetless legs and a very emphasized pubis (Iakovleva, Pinçon 1997, fig. 162-169).
- La Magdeleine: two young women present themselves in a very erotic way on the two walls of a small cave. The pubis is worked out very clearly (Atlas 1984, 540-543).
- Laugerie Basse: the so-called “Vénus impudique”, a small statuette confined to trunk, legs and pubis, could be the model of the relieves and the black drawing of Chauvet (e.g. Leroi-Gourhan 1971, fig. 53).
Le Guillou’s photo supplies further arguments confirming our reasoning: the bison-man to the right and the lion to the left:
- Representations of bison-men, i.e. of beings with human and animal elements, are a typical element of Magdalenian art: cf. Le Gabillou (e.g. Leroi-Gourhan 1971, fig. 58), Trois Frères (Bégouen, Breuil 1958, fig. 63. Züchner 1972).
- The lion to the left could also be a copy of a lion relief of Angles-sur-l’Anglin (Iakovleva, Pinçon 1997, fig. 148). Lions are not very frequent, but nevertheless common in Magdalenian art.
The Pont-d’Arc venus and the bison-man are drawn on a triangular hanging rock formation. The photograph in Le Guillou’s publication conveyes the impression that both figures belong to a composition, that there is a close relation between both. That reminds the so-called „femme au renne“ (woman with reindeer) of Laugerie Basse (Dordogne) (e.g. Graziosi 1956, pl. 85 c). The engraving on a shoulder blade shows a woman and a reindeer, which could also be a bovid, obviously in close personal relation with another. The woman is pregnat. Her pubic triangle is clearly emphasized though one can not see it in this position. It seems to be a clear hint to the Magdalenian age of the composition in the Chauvet Cave.
If we do not trust blindly in the results of radiocarbon and AMS dates and do not close our eyes to obvious parallels between the art of Magdalenian and the black series of Chauvet Cave we are forced to insist that the venus of Pont-d’Arc is a Magdalenian drawing.
It is difficult to decide why the AMS dates of Chauvet are so aberrant. Divided by two the dates would be congruent with the archaeological dates.
Even if Chauvet Cave is not as old as assumed it remains one of the outstanding highlights of cave art!
Atlas 1984: L’art des cavernes. Atlas des grottes ornées paléolithiques françaises. Paris.
Graziosi P. 1956: Die Kunst der Altsteinzeit. Florenz.
Iakovleva L., Pinçon G. 1997: Angles-sur-l’Anglin (Vienne) – La frise sculptée du Roc-aux-Sorciers. Documents Préhistoriques 9. Paris.
Le Guillou Y. 2001 : The Pont-d’Arc Venus – La vénus du Pont-d’Arc. INORA 29, 2001, 1-5.
Naber F.B. 1974: Laussel, ein paläolithischer Fundort. Bonner Hefte zur Vorgeschichte 2.
Leroi-Gourhan A. 1971: Prähistorische Kunst. Die Ursprünge der Kunst in Europa. Ars Antiqua. Große Epochen der Weltkunst. Freiburg-Basel-Wien.
Leroi-Gourhan A. 1965: Préhistoire de l’art occidental. Paris.
Bégouen H., Breuil H. 1958: Les Cavernes du Volp. Trois Frères – Tuc d´Audoubert. Paris.
Züchner Chr. 1972: Die Menschendarstellungen des französischen Jungpaläolithikums. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der eiszeitlichen Kunst Westeuropas. Dissertation Erlangen 1972.
Züchner Chr. 1995: Grotte Chauvet (Ardèche, Frankreich) – Oder: muss die Kunstgeschichte wirklich neu geschrieben werden? Quartär 45/46, 1995 1996), 221-226.