The Venus of Willendorf travelled hundreds of kilometres

The Venus of Willendorf, one of the world’s oldest pieces of artwork, was made of rock mined in Italy, more than 600 kilometres from her final resting place in Austria, according to new research. 

The diminutive, 11-centimetre figurine was found during a 1908 dig by the Natural History Museum Vienna, near Willendorf in Austria’s Wachau region. 

She’s made from oolite, a type of limestone formed from tiny grains (ooids) fused in the calm waters of tropical seas. Oolite is not found in the Wachau region, so archaeologists have long puzzled over the origin of the raw material.

Now, thanks to research led by Gerhard Weber at the University of Vienna and presented in a new study in Scientific Reports, we likely know where the oolite came from, and how far it had to travel to end up in Willendorf.

Weber used micro-computed tomography to obtain high-resolution images of the stone’s internal structure, which helped the research team determine the stone’s place of origin. With the help of geologists Alexander Lukeneder and Mathias Harzhauser of the Natural History Museum Vienna, the researchers searched for oolite deposits in Europe and sampled them for comparison, covering an area stretching from France to Ukraine.

“Due to the different grain sizes of the limestone ooids and variations in fossil content, each specimen is unique,” explains Lukeneder. Statistical analysis of numerous specimens yielded a telltale close match to a deposit in northern Italy, near Lake Garda. 

That means the stone travelled hundreds of kilometres, over or around the Alps, some 25,000 to 30,000 years ago. Whether it travelled in its raw form or already crafted into the statuette, we’ll likely never know.

“What you have to picture is that the Gravettian people (the toolmaking culture of the period) searched for and populated favourable habitats,” explains Weber. “Once the climate or hunting opportunities changed, they moved on, preferably along rivers.”

Complicating the picture, there is a second possible source candidate: a deposit in the Donetsk Basin in Ukraine also bears similarities to the Willendorf oolite.

Though the samples didn’t match as closely as those from the Italian deposit, the researchers note that female figurines bearing a striking resemblance to the Venus have been found in Ukraine and Russia, alongside similar tools. Moreover, there are examples of long-distance travel of artefacts between these regions – obsidian tools found in Austrian excavations have been traced to eastern Slovakia.

Whether the stone that made the Venus of Willendorf came from Italy or Ukraine, the research demonstrates remarkable, long-distance networks of communication and travel across the continent before the Last Glacial Maximum (the peak of the last Ice Age).

In another intriguing quirk of science, the team discovered tiny shell fragments within the figurine that they could reconstruct digitally in 3D. Comparing these shells with specimens in the fossil record, they were able to piece together the origins of the oolite itself, finding that the stone formed some 150 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed a hothouse Earth. 

“That we would be able to draw a line from the iconic Ice Age figurine to the tropical seas of the Mesozoic was a surprise to us all,” says Harzhauser.

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