1. The 23.000-year-old 'Renancourt Venus' from four different angles.

A 23,000-year-old Venus rises in France

A strikingly shaped 23,000-year-old Gravettian 'Venus' figure (1) has been unearthed at the site of Renancourt, in Amiens in France. This site (2) is well-known as one of the few providing evidence for human presence in northern France during the Early Upper Paleolithic period (35,000–15,000 BC). Discovered by archaeologists of the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) in 2011, the site of Amiens-Renancourt has been under full excavation since 2014 but it was last year that this exciting discovery was made.

This exceptional sculpture, now known as the 'Renancourt Venus' (1), joins a remarkable collection of 15 other similar Gravettian statuettes, the first of which was discovered in 2014. Sculpted in chalk and 4cm high, this 'Venus' is steatopygic: the volume of her rear, thighs and breasts is hypertrophied. The arms are barely present, and the face is represented without lines. In all this, she adheres perfectly to the aesthetic canon of the Gravettian stylistic tradition, as can be seen in the Venuses of Lespugue (Haute-Garonne) and Willendorf (Austria), as well as the bas-relief Venus of Laussel (Dordogne). The 'Renancourt Venus' also has a surprising hairstyle, represented by a grid pattern of thin incisions which is similar to those of the Venus of Willendrof and, especially, of the Venus of Brassempouy (in Landes), also known as the 'Lady with the Hood'.

2. INRAP archaeologists at work on the site of Amiens-Renancourt.

A few dozen of these 'Venuses' have been found across the world from the Pyrenees to Siberia. In France, only
15 have been discovered, mostly in the south-west in Aquitaine and in the Pyrenees. The last one was discovered in a reliable stratigraphic context in France in Tursac (Dordogne), in 1959.

The statuettes from the site of Amiens-Renancourt double the number of these Gravettian art objects discovered in France. The archaeologists think that this site was a workshop for the production of these sculptures as they are accompanied by several thousands of chalk fragments, some of which appear to be manufacturing waste products. The function and precise meaning of these Palaeolithic statuettes remain unknown. Once the study
and analysis of this Venus is completed, the sculpture will go to the Musée de Picardie in Amiens.

Four metres below the current ground level at the site of Amiens-Renancourt, lies a concentration of other very well-preserved artefacts. Dated by Carbon 14 to 23,000 years ago (21,000 BC) they belong to a late phase of the Gravettian culture, which occurred in Europe between 28,000 and 22,000 years ago. They include personal ornaments, such as unique perforated disks made of chalk.

Other finds reveal the diverse activities practised at what was once a Palaeolithic hunting camp. Among the numerous flint artefacts are projectile points (Gravette Points) that were used for hunting, while large flint blades were transformed into other tools, such as knives and scrapers. Abundant bone remains show that horse meat was regularly consumed here. In the full glacial period, this Gravettian hunting camp appears to have been occupied for only a few weeks at the end of the warm season, just before autumn.

Lindsay Fulcher