Dating back around 29,500 years, the Venus of Willendorf is the most important object in the entire NHM Vienna collection and one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world. It was discovered on 7 August 1908 during excavation work led by Josef Szombathy – then curator of the Prehistoric Collection at the Imperial and Royal Natural History Court Museum – and the prehistory experts Hugo Obermaier and Josef Bayer, who were entrusted with the organisation of the excavation in Willendorf in the Wachau region of Lower Austria. The 11-centimetre-high female figure, dyed with red chalk, was discovered by a worker on the site, Johann Veran, as he carefully sifted through the earth.

Ever since the discovery of the first Palaeolithic female figures these objects have fascinated art lovers and historians alike. Their meaning can be interpreted in many different ways, but only the raw material, the design and the physical circumstances of the find can be analysed and researched from a scientific and academic perspective. Staff at the museum cooperate closely with prehistory experts from other institutions in order to learn more about these figures. Ultimately, however, it will never be possible to prove or disprove any single all-encompassing interpretation of objects such as these.


Contact: Dr. Walpurga Antl-Weiser



Scientific analysis

Analysis of the Venus von Willendorf carried out in the mid-1950s revealed traces of a red chalk coating covering the entire surface of the figure. Red chalk seems to have been a symbolic colour and is associated with Venus statuettes throughout Europe, though many figures have also been found without red chalk.
It is impossible to know exactly how the Venus of Willendorf was made, but an analysis of its surface in 2008 clearly identified traces left behind by the final steps in the process. In 2007 Alexander Binsteiner, Godfried Wessely and Antonin Přychistal compared the stone used to make the Venus of Willendorf with oolite from various deposits. The closest matches with the Venus of Willendorf’s raw material was an oolite from the area near Brno, Czech Republic. In 2013 the Venus of Willendorf was examined in the micro-CT laboratory at the University of Vienna’s Anthropological Institute (led by Prof. Dr Gerhard Weber). The rock structures that were revealed in the process now allow even more precise comparisons of the stone with other raw material samples.



Iconological analysis

Figures like the Venus von Willendorf have been found from France to Russia. Stylistically, the Venus of Willendorf is most similar to the Venus figures of Eastern Europe. Most female figures found in Russia depict mature women with large stomachs and large breasts. Many of them wear ribbons on their bodies. The head is often tilted forward, as with the Venus of Willendorf. With her half-sitting posture the Venus of Willendorf shows a similar position to that found in the Venus figures of Gagarino. The depiction of the jewellery – the Venus of Willendorf is shown wearing bracelets – is similar to the figures from Kostenki. As with the Venus of Lespugue, the Venus of Willendorf has her arms raised above her chest.
There are considerable differences between the Siberian female sculptures, which often depict faces and clothing, and the highly hypertrophied bodies of the Italian figures from the Balzi Rossi caves. There are also abstract representations in which both female and male symbolism or a combination of both can be seen. Modelled faces such as the female heads from Brassempouy in France and Dolní Věstonice in Moravia underline that faceless figures represent a very specific statement. Despite the differences in execution, these depictions of women from the Middle Late Palaeolithic share common features. Similar traits can be found in such Venus figures throughout Europe, but there are also regional variations.

Interpretation of Venus

For the people living about 29,500 years ago, these figures had a very specific meaning. The fact that miniatures of this kind have been found so widely across Europe indicates that their symbolism was understood throughout the region. Researchers still refer to these depictions of women as "Venus" because the first such figure found in 1864 was named "Venus impudique" (= unchaste Venus). The exact depiction of the sexual organs led them to soon be associated with fertility.
There was obviously a very specific idea behind such Venus figures – an idea which for the people of the Palaeolithic was expressed by the image of a woman. The creator of the Venus of Willendorf did not represent an obese woman for her own sake. Instead, he or she shaped what they wanted to represent as an obese woman. Which thoughts, wishes and ideas were once associated with the Venus statues? We do not know. The fact that women featured so prominently in such figures says nothing about the role of women in the Palaeolithic as long as we do not know the exact meaning of these creations.


Wilhelm Angeli published parts of the archive material on the Venus of Willendorf in 1989. In 2008, to mark the 100th anniversary of her discovery, all of the find documents, raw material analyses and a detailed analysis of the traces on the surface of the figure were presented for the first time.
W. Angeli 1989: Die Venus von Willendorf. Vienna, 1989
W. Antl-Weiser 2008: Die Frau von W. Die Venus von Willendorf, ihre Zeit und die Geschichte(n) um ihre Auffindung. Vienna.
Further reading
F. Felgenhauer 1956-59: Willendorf i. d. Wachau. Monographie der Fundstellen I-VII, Mitt. d. Prähist. Komm. VIII/IX, 1956-59.
M. Gvozdover, 1995: Art of the Mammoth Hunters. The finds from Avdeevo, Oxbow Monograph 49, Oxford 1995