Mystery solved: the material of the 30,000-year-old Venus from Willendorf came along a long path from Lake Garda in today’s Northern Italy to the Danube River in Lower Austria

Monument at the site where the Venus from Willendorf was found. Photo: SchiDD / <a href=""target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>, <a href=""target="_blank">Creative Commons License</a>

Non-destructive high-resolution tomography enabled the comparison of the Venus oolite limestone with samples from all over Europe

The almost 11 cm high figurine from Willendorf is one of the most important examples of early art in Europe. It is made of a rock called oolite which is not found in or around Willendorf. A research team from Vienna has now found out with the help of high-resolution tomographic images that the material likely came from northern Italy from Lake Garda.

While other Venus figures are usually made of ivory or bone, sometimes also of different stones, oolite was used for the Lower Austrian Venus, which is unique for such cult objects. The figurine found in the Wachau in 1908 and on display in the Natural History Museum in Vienna has so far only been examined from the outside.

Now, anthropologist Gerhard Weber from the University of Vienna has used a new method to examine its interior: micro-computed tomography. During several passes, the scientist team obtained images with a resolution of up to 11.5 micrometers – a quality that is otherwise only seen under a microscope.

The results were compared with oolites from other sites all over Europe. The perfect match had samples from a location in northern Italy near Lake Garda. This is remarkable because it means that the Venus or at least its material made a journey from south of the Alps to the Danube north of the Alps (between today’s cities of Linz and Vienna).

The original Venus from Willendorf. Left: lateral view. Right-top: hemispherical cavities on the right haunch and leg. Right bottom: existing hole enlarged to form the navel. Source: Kern, A. & Antl-Weiser, W. Venus. (Edition-Lammerhuber, 2008)

Nevertheless, there is another possible site as origin of the rock. It is in eastern Ukraine, more than 1,600 km linear distance from Willendorf. The samples there do not fit as clearly as those from Italy, but better than all the rest. An interesting connection here: Venus figures were found in nearby southern Russia, which are somewhat younger, but look very similar to the Venus found in Austria. Genetic results also show that people in Central and Eastern Europe were connected to one another at this time.

The tomographic data from the Vienna researchers also showed that the sediments in the oolite were deposited in different densities and sizes. In between, there were also small remnants of shells and six very dense, larger grains, so-called limonites. The latter explains the previously mysterious hemispherical cavities on the surface of Venus with the same diameter: “The hard limonites probably broke out when the creator of the Venus was carving it,“ explains anthropologist Gerhard Weber: “In the case of the Venus’s navel, he then apparently made it a virtue out of necessity.“

Another finding: The Venus oolite is porous because the cores of the millions of globules (ooides) of which it is comprised had dissolved. This is a great explanation for why the sculptor chose this material 30,000 years ago: It is much easier to work with. He probably knew which stone was best for his work.

The research team was led by the anthropologist Gerhard Weber from the University of Vienna. Partners were the two geologists Alexander Lukeneder and Mathias Harzhauser as well as the prehistorian Walpurga Antl-Weiser from the Vienna Natural History Museum.

Scientific Reports: The microstructure and the origin of the Venus from Willendorf. Weber, G.W., Lukeneder, A., Harzhauser, M., Mitteroecker, P., Wurm, L., Hollaus. L.-M., Kainz, S., Haack, F., Antl-Weiser, W., Kern, A. 2022.

Smithsonian Magazine

(15.03.2022, 03.15.2022)