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Clothing of figurines may be record of Ice Age tribes' skills

Monday, June 21, 1999

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

Besides a woven hat and a pair of dainty bracelets, the voluptuous Venus of Willendorf doesn't wear so much as a smile. So perhaps it's not surprising that the exaggerated sexual features of this stone-cold babe -- a 4-inch-tall limestone figurine unearthed near Willendorf, Austria, in 1908 -- have mesmerized archaeologists and art historians much as the charms of Pamela Anderson Lee have distracted otherwise diligent Web surfers.

James Adovasio of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute in Erie, and his colleagues have put forth new theories about Venus figurines. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette) 

But experts now are taking a second look at the scanty bits of apparel worn by Miss Willendorf and by some of the hundreds of other "Venus" figurines that have been preserved from Ice Age Europe. They say the necklaces, string skirts and other "Venus-wear" that do so little to hide the obvious are proving to be equally revealing about the hunter-gatherer societies that existed along the receding glaciers.

These odd and mysterious figurines suggest that people living 26,000 years ago possessed well-developed weaving skills that were at least as valuable to the community as the strength and prowess of male hunters. Even the head dress worn by the Venus of Willendorf arguably reflects social traditions still seen today in the babushkas worn by women in Eastern Europe or even the bonnets favored by Amish women in Pennsylvania.

These new insights, ironically, are derived from Venus-wear that has been in plain sight for decades.

"The vast majority of folks have simply ignored the fact that these are woven fabrics," said James Adovasio, director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute in Erie. It's an oversight he attributes to the mindset of archaeologists. Stone implements, not textiles, supposedly were state of the art during the Paleolithic period, the Stone Age.

"When you have these stereotypes, you don't look beyond the stereotype," he explained.

But those assumptions began to change a couple years ago, when Adovasio, his Mercyhurst colleague David Hyland and University of Illinois anthropologist Olga Soffer uncovered evidence that the Paleolithic people in what is now the Czech Republic were making twine, fashioning nets and even producing cloth.

The textiles themselves hadn't survived more than 20 millenia, but the cordage and woven articles had left impressions in the mud floors of huts. Those preserved impressions enabled Adovasio and Hyland to indirectly study the long-gone textiles, even allowing them to analyze types of knots.

"Simply having the ability to make string must have dramatically changed people's lives," said Elizabeth Barber, a linguist and archaeologist at Occidental College, near Los Angeles. String lets people haul things and catch things in nets. "I call it the string revolution. It must have been as powerful as the invention of writing and the wheel."

  Archaeologists and scientists believe the sexual features of the Venus of Willendorf, a cast of which is at right, are exaggerated. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

Nets, in particular, suggest that hunter-gatherers need not have relied on hunting mammoths, deer and other big game. Women and even children likely would have been involved in hunting small game, constructing and hanging nets and then chasing varmints into the trap.

But studying Ice Age textiles is like chasing phantoms, so Soffer, Adovasio and Hyland are pursuing other lines of evidence in hopes of further bolstering their claims. The Venus figurines are one such effort.

In the case of the Venus of Willendorf, Adovasio said, they knew they were dealing with an icon. When he and Soffer went to examine the statuette at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, they found themselves escorted to an inner room with special lighting, where museum officials produced the figurine from a special leather case embossed in gold.

"I told them I needed to hold it to examine it," Adovasio said. "It was like I was asking to touch the Holy Grail." When given permission, he focused on the Venus' head, which has no facial features, but an intricately carved covering. "They thought it was an elaborate hairstyle," but it was unlike any hairdo he had ever seen. He came away convinced that it was a woven cap, not woven hair, with concentric rows of plaited material.

Only a minority of the Venus figurines have any apparel. Adovasio and his colleagues, however, have noted the presence of belts, bracelets, various headcoverings, string skirts and bandeaux, narrow strips of material worn on the torso. "Even the so-called naked ones often have necklaces and bandeaux, which are often written off as tattoos," he noted. "But tattoos with seams?"

A notable aspect of Venus-wear is the detail in which it is depicted. The figurines generally aren't very realistic -- the pear-shaped, disproportioned Venus of Willendorf likely had as much resemblance to women of the Paleolithic as she does to contemporary women. The Venus heads usually have no faces.

Yet the detail of the Venus-wear is tremendous. "You can tell which way the string was twisted," Adovasio said. "It's really kind of amazing."

At the simplest level, he said, the depiction of fabric provides evidence that Paleolithic people were familiar with cloth, which would suggest that weaving had been developing for hundreds of thousands of years before the figurines were carved or molded.

"This has been my argument for more than a quarter of a century," said Alexander Marshack, an image analyst for Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. "The capacity was there. It is the human capacity. The basic skills are human and found all over the world.

"Weaving was just a way of problem solving," he continued. "They had no metal, but they used everything available in their ecology. They were just like us. We have become more technically advanced, not smarter."

His argument was based only on this rationale, rather than archaeological evidence, so many scientists dismissed it. Now that Soffer and Adovasio are finding textile artifacts, "I feel, perhaps, a little vindicated," he said.

But when trying to determine what these figurines meant to Paleolithic people, "you have to be careful about what you deduce from the evidence," he cautioned.

"It's hard to say what they mean," agreed Rosemary Joyce, an anthropologist at the University of California-Berkeley who studies South American figurines dating back 3,500 years. These sorts of figurines are found throughout the world and the ages and, like symbols today, they likely meant different things to different people.

It's probably safe to assume that the statuettes were a means of communication used by preliterate people, she said. Just as a newspaper focuses on things that are new, interesting or significant while ignoring everyday details, the people who made these clay or stone figurines weren't so much interested in reflecting society as they were in representing moments of importance.

So the fact that they expended so much energy on the details of apparel suggests there is something important about these items. Likewise, "the absence of skin [or fur] clothing thrusts the few woven objects into high relief," Joyce said. Perhaps the makers are commenting on the importance of textiles in their lives, or use the woven objects to identify people who are weavers, or the woven objects could simply be ceremonial clothing that denotes an individual's status.

Soffer and colleagues noted that some figurines have string skirts. Occidental's Barber has traced the use of string skirts from the late Stone Age through the Bronze Age to present day; consistently, string skirts have been a sign of fertility.

Even today, girls in Albania wear string skirts only after reaching puberty.

Likewise, if the Venus of Willendorf is indeed wearing a head covering, it too might be related to a present-day practice. Barber said women in some cultures, seeing the hair as an analogue for pubic hair, routinely cover their heads after marriage. It's a tradition still seen in Eastern Europe and one that has been taken a step further by the Amish, who cover the hair of girls and women alike.

"You have to take all this with a grain of salt," Barber added. "But the material all hangs together."

Symbolism aside, the evidence of Ice Age textiles continues to grow. Soffer, now on sabbatical, has been traveling across Russia, Germany and France, gathering photos and casts of woven clothing for Adovasio and Hyland to analyze.

She reports seeing what appear to be bone and ivory weaving tools, such as battens, and some impressions of what may be basketry. "This is all work very much in progress," she said in an e-mail message.

This week, Adovasio has joined her in France, where they hope to examine the only known examples of Ice Age fabrics -- stamp-size bits that, when excavated in the 1920s, were assumed to be more recent textiles that had somehow gotten mixed into an Ice Age site.

The Venus figurines not only reinforce the significance of these textile artifacts, but provide the "ideological overtones" of the Paleolithic peoples, Adovasio said. "They're expressing what society believes was important."

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