The woman of Dolni Vestonice was discovered in the present day Czech Republic in 1925 at the site known as Dolni Vestonice. The site is located in the Pavlov hills among concentrations of loess with small amounts of clay and sand. It is from this material that the 11.5 cm figurine (Just over 4.5 inches) was made. Concerning her composition, she is among artifacts from the oldest known ceramic production in the world. She was discovered broken in two pieces in the midst of an ash deposit, the remaining section of her legs were never found. Accompanying the figure in the ash deposit were several animal figurines, also of ceramic and several unknown ceramic fragments (Verpoorte). The object was dated between 31,000 and 27,000 BP (Cook 66).
This period occurs at the LGM or Last Glacial Maximum of the Ice Age, though the site in question was among the most temperate in the region due to favorable geographic location and geologic features. It may have been for this reason the the site was occupied for so long. Some of these favorable conditions also led the site to be along a major animal migration route, especially mammoth, which would have provided food, clothing and shelter for the people, which would have been another reason for the concentration of archeological sites in the area.
This image is of the region in present time. The settlements of Dolni Vestonice and the surrounding areas represent some of the best studied and documented sites from the Gravettian period. Excavation began in 1924 under the direction of K. Absolon. These digs are the most extensive and provide much of the basis for modern scholarship on the area. Two digs occurred around the Second World War and then again in the early 1990’s, primarily to attain materials for carbon dating of the sites (Verpoorte 38).
As stated above, the material that composes the “ceramic” objects of the region was primarily loess found on site (windblown silt) comprised primarily of alumina and silica with trace amounts of quartz and muscovite mica (Verpoorte 98), mixed with water. The material had a very low clay content. The objects were created by an additive process of pressing and sculpting major body forms and and attaching legs, and tails etc. According to electron microscope analysis, there was no post creation attention given to the objects in the form of smoothing, burnishing or pigment additions (Cook 147)
The majority of the ceramic objects found in Dolni Vestonice relocated in and around ash layers in large hearths. These hearths also contained burnt bone fragments and charcoal, pointing to types of fuel used in the firing process. The dark color of the ceramics points to a reduction atmosphere in the hearth like kilns that fired the work, though some fragments colored red and orange point to some oxidation. This indicates that either the work was fired within the fuel used to heat the kiln, or a layer of ash was used to protect the work as it fired. Average firing temperatures were between 500 and 800 degrees C (932-1472 degrees fahrenheit), though it is cautioned that works fired below these temperatures would not have survived the the span of years and do not appear in the fossil record. Firing times are estimated at a few hours. (Verpoorte 98)
Contemporary thought on the anatomy of the “kilns” is one of caution. While it is true that ground features surrounding the hearths point to an advanced understanding of fire and heat, the region of the sites is one that has been subject to a great deal of geological turmoil over the last 30,000 years and so little knowledge about placement is absolute. The hearths were large kettle shaped depressions, this area is where most of the fired material was discovered. In front of the hearth run two separate gullies. Many archeologists believe this points to a partly covered (likely with clay and limestone) kiln with two channels for the movement of air (Verpoorte 59).
The objects themselves are primarily of 3 types, figurative (including animals) structural and small unformed pellets, and nearly all these objects are broken. The most well known of these are the figurative works, two of which are pictured in this post and whose making has already been discussed. The structural ceramics appear to be incidental, possibly resulting from the accidental burning of structures in the settlement. These objects are formed from slabs of conjoined strips and often contain prints of cordage, knots and woven plant fibers (Verpoorte 98). The last type, the rough formed clay pellets are possibly the most thought provoking and point to an intriguing theory about the ceramic production at Dolni Vestonice.
An estimated 99% of the ceramic taken from the hearths was broken. the most common of these breaks appear along joints in the construction of the objects. Of these fragments, half of the breaks are due to mechanical forces, such as being crushed, and half are the result of thermal shock, due to firing the object while still wet (Verpoorte 98). Given our understanding of kiln technology at the time, it is theorized that the ancient ceramists knew enough about firing to understand how this might be prevented (Cook 148). That these fragments are the primary type of ceramic found at the sites and that there is almost no ceramic outside the hearth areas, indicating that it was not removed and used for later purposes, a prominent theory among archeologists is that the explosions that occurred in the kiln served some community or ceremonial purpose and that this was the sole purpose of the ceramic production (Verpoorte 100)
While we will never truly know the motives of people that lived so long ago and all the science is in some ways speculation, the exploration is meaningful. It connects us to a time when art was just begging, it is the first influence in that all art proceeds from that which came before. Looking at these early pieces and the techniques by which they were made can be a sort of reset, to cleanse the palate of all that is being made in contemporary art and connect to what is fundamental in the urge to create.
Verpoorte, Alexander. Places of art, traces of fire: a contextual approach to anthropomorphic figurines in the Pavlovian (Central Europe, 29-24 kyr BP). Leiden: Faculty of Archaeology, University of Leiden ;, 2001. Print.
Cook, J.. Ice Age art: the arrival of the modern mind. London: The British Museum Press, 2013. Print.