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Northern Colorado speaker discusses Venus figurines

By Daniel Greeson
On February 24, 2014

  • Sarah Milledge Nelson during her talk on Venus figurines. Breelyn Bowe | The Mirror

What does it mean when some of the first pieces of prehistoric art represent the female form?
Sarah Milledge Nelson, 2011 recipient of the Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Award, spoke  as the fourth lecturer in the yearly Lydia Ruyle Room of Women's Arts Speaker Series on Tuesday. The presentation was titled "Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines: What Do They Mean?"
Milledge Nelson's lecture focused on things  she considers to be popular misconceptions about cavemen. She specifically focused on the "Venus figurines." The Venus figurines are ancient female statues that archaeologists have found all over the world.
Milledge Nelson said modern anthropologists have often misinterpreted these figurines.
"When we talk about the past, we have to beware the conceptions of our own culture," Milledge Nelson said. "Assumptions of our culture should not be read into the past."
Milledge Nelson explained popular anthropological misconceptions have left out women from much of early history. She explained the nakedness of the Venus figures does not necessarily mean that they were erotic in nature and made by men.
She recounted a conversation she had with a male anthropologist following a speech he made.
"I told him, 'You keep referring to the cave painter as 'he,' but do you actually think that it was just men in the caves?'" Milledge Nelson said. "And he said, 'You have to realize it was dark and scary in those caves.' So I said, 'Oh, I see, cave women were afraid of mice and spiders.'"
Milledge Nelson also explained that the labeling of the Venus figurines as "fat ladies" motivated her to investigate them.
"The fact that they were called 'fat ladies' was what led me into my research," Milledge Nelson said. "In one of my lectures, I said that the figurines were stylized, and one of my female students who was overweight said, 'No, they're not stylized.' The student explained to me that the places on the figurines that have a lot of fat, those are the places where females really put on fat."
Milledge Nelson also addressed the misconception that all of the Venus figurines are obese, explaining that there are actually several types of figurines varying in body type.
She also cleared up other misconceptions about the figurines. One student asked if the figurines might look obese because they are actually self-portraits.
"I think that's silly," Milledge Nelson replied. "The woman who made the figurine had to look down at herself so the figurine gets distorted? Weren't there any other women around to look at?"
Milledge Nelson said that fewer than 100 of the figurines have been found, and the majority of them were found one at a time, which makes it difficult to determine their significance in ancient society.

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