The Dolni Vestonice archaeological site just south of the Thaya River in the Czech Republic, has to be one of the most fascinating Palaeolithic sites in the world. The site dates from around 27,000 Bc to 20,000 Bc, placing it in the Gravettian period in the upper Palaeolithic. Similarly to the caves of the Swabian Alps, this central European site is responsible for world firsts.
Dolni Vestonice The most famous find from Dolni Vestonice is a Venus Figurine (below left), but unlike earlier such figures, this one is not carved from mammoth ivory or stone, but moulded in clay and fired. This makes the site of world importance, as this is the earliest evidence of baked clay figurines in human history. This is not its only claim to fame, many other interesting objects have been found here, including a mammoth carving of a male face most people may of seen, but might not know its pedigree. The facial carving being a realistic “portrait” style carving (below right) is unlike anything seen before. Most carvings from this age are more abstract and stylised in their appearance.
There is such an abundance of interesting artefacts that this is a dig site I will certainly come back to in later pieces. For this piece though, I want to focus on a single female burial, and associated finds.
Within this complex of Palaeolithic huts, was a very special one, the one where most of the clay figurines were found. Unlike the others which were close together this one was some 80+ meters away, and partly cut into a hill, close to a spring. In the centre of this hut was a hearth, but unlike those found in the rest of the prehistoric village, this one had a domed top, it was a clay oven. Around this oven were over 2300 fragments of the worlds first “pottery”. They ranged from animal figurines, to Venus figures, from the realistic to the very abstract. That wasn’t all either, below the floor surface, in a central position and under two decorated Mammoth shoulder blades was a burial of a Woman.
She was 40 or more years old at her time of death, which for this period of human existence was a very good age. Given she was buried within the area of the ceramics, many believe her to be the craftswoman responsible. This is added to by the fact it appears that her burial signalled the end of use for this particular hut, and with no other huts seemingly containing a clay oven, it would be hard to believe she was not responsible for the figurines.
Her body was in a fetal position and had red ochre scattered over it. Close to her right hand were 10 canines of an arctic Fox, whilst next to her left hand she had the complete remains of another arctic Fox animal. She also had a flint spear head close to her head, if this was attached to a spear shaft it is unclear, as the great age of this site would leave no trace of such a material.
The Woman herself was very small, and would of stood at only 4 foot 10 inches. She also appears to have some deformity on the left side of her face, which would of caused it to be slightly lower than the other and also possibly making her blind in one eye, similar to that of someone who has suffered a stroke. Despite her petite stature and facial deformity she was clearly very important to the community, that itself could have been the home to over 100 people! Which given the date, this would make it a very large settlement for the period.
What makes this burial even more spectacular, is that among the debris of her hut was a mammoth carving of a female head (below top), that exactly like the woman in the burial was disfigured on the left side of the face. Given the odds, it is highly likely this carving was a portrait of the woman herself, which would make it the oldest ever known. To add to this a mask (below bottom) was also found at the site, again with a clear sloping on the left side of the face. Which raises even more questions, could the mask have been used by her descendants as a way to “invoke” her after her death?
With so many obviously symbolic grave goods and this ladies clear importance among her tribe, many believe this woman to be a “shaman”. Now the word shaman gets banded about in archaeological finds, and much like “ceremonial” doesn’t really mean much. To clear this up a little all they really mean is that this lady had clear spiritual significance to her community. Her age may of played a large part in her importance too, she was clearly old enough to be a grandparent, making her almost a living ancestor in those times.
This leaves the question, what was the spiritual significance of the clay figurines, and even the very process of firing them? Well, there is always some mystical element to a new technology, that I am sure played a part, but of the thousands of pieces of ceramics found at this site, none were functional. By this I mean there were no pots, or containers, only figurines, and other more abstract symbolic creations. As well as this many appear to of exploded in the firing process. The frequency of the “exploded” pieces and that of pieces that were clearly made by skilled hands has led many of the archaeologist to believe this “error” in the firing process was not accidental, but deliberate.
We also cannot ignore the fact that many cultures around the world often claim that “God” made them from clay or earth. So someone creating either representations of people or animals in clay and deliberately “exploding” them in a clay oven, or firing them successfully is obviously a powerful one. Some may even argue this could be the origin of such mythology, given its very early date. All the evidence points to some ancient and powerful religious practice, that of creation, life and death. If this were the case this woman would literally be seen as being able to mould the fates of men within her hands.
Of course this is speculation, but the evidence here is so tantalising, it is impossible for someone like myself not begin to craft ideas of its meaning. The ability to create, is one of the gifts of man, whilst animals also create, there creations are generally limited and rarely if ever does an animal create something none of its species ever has. A bird will craft a nest, depending on the type of bird and the environment, each nest will have almost identical characteristics. If we look at modern or ancient dwellings, even within a relatively small area, created by almost identical people, we can see quite substantial differences and this is just dwellings! When we begin to look at all the ways mankind can create and have an impact on the environment, both good and bad, it is clear none is closer to the Gods and Goddesses than us in this area at least.
A good friend of mine, a Wodanist and exceptionally talented artist of many forms himself, once told me,
“I believe that our little lives all play into a greater, simpler conflict which is that of creation and expansion vs chaos and destruction. Nature vs anti-nature. For me, the Gods and Goddesses represent the force of growth, creation and expansion, and we are instilled with the divine spark which enables us to create beautiful things. So to me, every small creation of art, music, poetry, architecture; is us exercising that divine spark we have within us, which links us to the Gods and Goddesses and their similar will.”
And I couldn’t agree more! To create is to dance the dance of the Gods and Goddesses. Creation is powerful and has an impact upon living things and the environment as a whole in ways you probably wouldn’t even imagine. Another thing found at the Dolni Vestonice was some early footwear. Now this simple invention, albeit making life a little easier on the feet might seem quite innocuous, but skeletal evidence from the site shows that this invention led to skeletal changes within the human foot. The upper Palaeolithic, as well as inventing “shoes” also shows a reduced strength in the “lesser” toes. This simple invention changed the human form! Man thus had impact upon the creation of the gods and Goddesses.
Creation though is a big subject, as my friends quote hints at, a subject of many fascinating intrigues, especially regarding our relationship to the Gods and Goddesses and something I will certainly come back too. For this small piece though, it is important we just take note of this most powerful aspect of mankind, and its possible implications upon the significance of this Lady.
Whilst other finds at this site may seem more spectacular, this simple burial of a woman instantly struck me. As stated the exact nature of this ladies life, some 25 thousand years ago, will always be somewhat of a mystery to us. But this ancient ancestor from Europe’s distant past, can still teach us a few things about ourselves and the nature of our existence, Just as I am sure she did with her tribe when she was alive, if, that is, we take time and care to look.