3-D Scans Show 30,000-Year-Old Stone Sculpture Dug Up in Austria Likely Came From Italy

Scientists suspect an ancient limestone carving known as the Venus of Willendorf traveled hundreds of miles across the Southern Alps

Venus Composite
Scientists claim that the rock used to carve the Venus of Willendorf statue likely came from Italy. Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikimedia Commons

A 30,000-year-old statue of a full-figured woman unearthed in Austria may have originated nearly 600 miles away in Italy, reported Alex Greenberger of ARTnews early this month. Scientists made this discovery after studying 3-D scans of the carved rock to determine its source.

Known as Venus of Willendorf, the 4.3-inch-tall statuette—considered one of the oldest-known examples of figurative sculpture—was found in 1908 on the banks of the Danube River in Austria, according to Mindy Weisberger of Live Science. Archaeologists say an ancient sculptor carved the ochre-colored figurine from oolitic limestone during the Ice Age.

In a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers say the stone used in the sculpture—carved as “a symbolized adult and faceless female with exaggerated genitalia, pronounced haunches, a protruding belly, heavy breasts and a sophisticated headdress or hairdo”—closely matches material found near Lake Garda in the Southern Alps in Italy.

The samples were “virtually indistinguishable,” suggesting “a very high probability for the raw material to come from south of the Alps,” the scientists wrote in the study.

Route
Walking distance between where the statue was unearthed in Austria and where the rock may have originated in Italy is nearly 600 miles. Gerhard Weber/University of Vienna

Scientists speculate the Gravettians—an Upper Paleolithic hunter-gather culture that inhabited Europe tens of thousands of years ago—carried the statue with them when migrating north to the Danube, a walking distance of nearly 600 miles from the site where it is believed to have originated, per Ross Pomeroy of RealClear Science.

According to lead author Gerhard W. Weber, the ancient people likely relocated around Europe over generations in response to changing climate conditions about 30,000 years ago.

“People in the Gravettian—the tool culture of the time—looked for and inhabited favorable locations,” the head of the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Vienna says in a statement. “When the climate or the prey situation changed, they moved on, preferably along rivers.”

Working with prehistorian Walpurga Antl-Weiser and the Natural History Museum in Vienna, owner of Venus of Willendorf, researchers at the University of Vienna employed a technology known as micro-computed tomography—a type of X-ray CT scan—to examine the stone’s interior slice by slice, reports ARTnews. For comparison, scientists obtained rock samples from France, Ukraine, Crimea, Germany and Sicily.

“We found a strikingly close match for grain size distribution near Lake Garda in the Southern Alps,” the researchers state in the study.

Using the extremely high-definition photography, the team also detected bivalve fossil fragments in the statue of the same type found in oolite limestone from northern Italy, according to Live Science. The now-extinct genus known as Oxytomidae existed 251 million to 66 million years ago.

Limonite
The micro-computed tomography revealed bivalves and limonite. Gerhard Weber/University of Vienna

Per ARTnews, Venus of Willendorf sports a rather large belly button. Researchers believe that may have been the result of a limonite particle being present in the stone at that location. The sculptor may have removed the grain, leaving a gaping space for the large naval.

“Based on its size, the cavity at the navel could indeed have resulted from a limonite concretion which was broken off and was turned into a feature,” the study states.

While it is difficult to determine when the limestone was mined or when it was carved—or even when it was transported from the Alps to the Danube—researchers say the Venus of Willendorf statue clearly demonstrates how the Gravettians moved about Europe millennia ago.

“This sheds new light on the remarkable mobility of the first modern humans south and north of the Alps,” the researchers say in the statement.