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Venus of Brassempouy

The Venus of Brassempouy (French: la Dame de Brassempouy "Lady of Brassempouy" or Dame à la Capuche "Lady with the Hood") is a fragmentary ivory figurine from the Upper Palaeolithic which was discovered at Brassempouy, France in 1892. About 25,000 years old, it is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human face.


Brassempouy is a small village in the département of Landes in southwest France. Two caves near the village, and only 100 metres from each other, were among the first Paleolithic sites to be explored in France; they are known as the Galerie des Hyènes (Gallery of the Hyenas) and the Grotte du Pape (the "Pope's Cave"), in which the Venus of Brassempouy was discovered in 1892, accompanied by at least eight other human figures, often ignored, and an example of unfinished work, with multiple figures of women being carved at the same time.

The Grotte du Pape was first explored by P.E. Dubalen in 1881, then by J. de Laporterie and Édouard Piette (1827–1906) from 1894 onwards. Since archaeological excavation techniques were only starting to develop at that time, not much attention was paid to the stratigraphy of the site containing the remains, which were pillaged and disturbed almost beyond reconstruction in connection with a field trip of amateurs from the Association française pour l’avancement de la science in 1892. Nevertheless, Piette described layers attributed to the late and middle Solutrean. He termed the bottom levels he reached as éburnéen, in reference to the copious amounts of ivory they contained. Modern reanalysis of the site has been undertaken under the direction of Henri Delporte, 1981–2000.

In 1894, one of those strata, today recognised as Gravettian, yielded several fragments of female statuettes, including the "Lady with the Hood". Piette saw the figures as closely related with the representations of animals of the Magdalenian and developed a hypothetical chronology that was later refuted by Henri Breuil.


The Venus of Brassempouy was carved from mammoth ivory. She is 3.65 cm high, 2.2 cm deep and 1.9 cm wide. Her face is triangular and seems tranquil. While forehead, nose and brows are carved in relief, the mouth is absent. A vertical crack on the right side of the face is linked to the internal structure of the ivory. On the head is a checkerboard-like pattern formed by two series of shallow incisions at right angles to each other; it has been interpreted as a wig, a hood, or simply a representation of hair.

Randall White observed in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (December 2006 ), "The figurines emerged from the ground into a colonial intellectual and socio-political context nearly obsessed with matters of race." Although the style of representation is essentially realistic, the proportions of the head do not correspond exactly to any known human population of the present or past. Since the mid-twentieth century interpretative questions have shifted from race to matters concerning womanhood and fertility, White has noted.


Even though the head was discovered so early in the development of modern archaeology that its context could not be studied with all the attention it would have deserved, there is no doubt that the Venus of Brassempouy belonged to an Upper Palaeolithic material culture, the Gravettian (29,000–22,000 BP), more precisely the Middle Gravettian, with "Noailles" burins circa 26,000 to 24,000 BP.

She is more or less contemporary with the other Palaeolithic Venus figurines, such as those of Lespugue, Dolní Věstonice, Willendorf, etc. Nonetheless, she is distinguished among the group by the realistic character of the representation.


The Venus of Brassempouy is preserved in the Musée d'Archéologie Nationale at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris Since ivory is very susceptible to damage from factors such as temperature change, moisture, and light, the figure is not part of the museum's permanent display. Instead, it occasionally forms part of temporary exhibitions.

At Brassempouy itself, a variety of objects excavated in the Grotte du Pape are on display at the Maison de la Dame. This exhibition space, primarily devoted to the archaeology of the region, also contains a fine set of casts of palaeolithic sculptures, including the nine existing specimens from Brassempouy, but also the well-known figures from Lespugue, Willendorf and Dolní Věstonice, as well as the Mal'ta Venus, and the Grimaldi Venus.


In 1976, the Venus of Brassempouy was depicted on a 2.00 Franc stamp. It has also been the motif of a 15 Franc (CFA) stamp of the Republic of Mali.

See also



  • H. Delporte, Brassempouy – la grotte du Pape, station préhistorique, Association culturelle de Contis, 1980
  • H. Delporte, L'image de la femme dans l'art préhistorique, éd. Picard, 1993 (ISBN 2-7084-0440-7)
  • C. Cohen, La femme des origines - images de la femme dans la préhistoire occidentale, Belin - Herscher, 2003 (ISBN 2-7335-0336-7)
  • P. Perrève, La dame à la capuche - roman historique - Ed. Olivier Orban, 1984, (ISBN 2-85565-244-8)

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