Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Friday 21 August 2015

The Grimes Graves Venus - fertility symbol or fake?

The Grimes Graves Venus - British Museum
Writing about the Verulamium Venus last week set me thinking about other famous and not so famous Venuses. The Willendorf Venus is probably the best known of the Paleolithic carvings of (often pregnant) women that were presumably made as fertility symbols ('fertility symbols' is a very simplistic description, but it will do for now).

The Venus of Willendorf - Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

Several dozen of these figures, the oldest yet discovered being about 35,000 years old, have been found elsewhere in Europe, but none turned up in Britain until 1939.

In July of that year (incidentally, just when Sutton Hoo was being excavated too) archaeologist A.L. (Leslie) Armstrong was digging at Grimes Graves, near Weeting in Norfolk. Grimes Graves is a Neolithic flint mine which operated between about 3000 BCE and 1800 BCE; the flints were distributed by means of the Peddars Way and Icknield Way and used to make tools. Armstrong discovered at the bottom of a mineshaft the Venus figurine sitting on a flat slab of chalk. Nearby were also found a skilfully made chalk bowl, and a sculpted chalk phallus, along with some other artefacts. 

Grimes Graves Venus and phallus - British Museum
These objects were interpreted as being offerings to the Great Goddess, Mother Nature, as thanks for the flints that She had provided, and perhaps in the hope that She would continue to provide if rewarded with offerings. The flat slab of chalk was seen as an altar, and the crudely carved figurine of a heavily pregnant woman, together with the phallus, were taken to be inducements to encourage Her to 'grow' flints in what the Neolithic miners might have thought of as Her womb. 

This all seemed consistent with discoveries of other prehistoric Venuses elsewhere in Europe (and other parts of the world). Some archaeologists formulated the theory that ancient religion was dedicated to worshipping a Mother Goddess rather than God the Father; some went further, and claimed that prehistoric societies were matriarchal rather than patriarchal, with women in charge. Some archaeologists, such as Marija Gimbutas, dedicated their careers to propagating this theory.* It's certainly in some ways a very attractive idea: surely the world must have been a better place when women were in charge - aren't most of the world's problems (we might think) caused by wannabe alpha males? - and maybe if women could be more powerful in the future the world could once again become just and peaceful. As Ronald Hutton drily puts it in Pagan Britain, 'Whether or not there was an "Age of the Goddess" in Neolithic Europe, there certainly was one among European intellectuals in the mid twentieth century.'

The trouble was that all the evidence that could be interpreted to support this theory could very easily be interpreted in other ways. Believing this theory involves an awful lot of wishful thinking rather than hard evidence. Consequently the Great Goddess has drifted out of the critical mainstream in recent decades.

What of the lumpy and ungainly but not unendearing Grimes Grave Venus? The executors of Armstrong's will donated her to the British Museum in 1959 after his death the previous year, and she was put on display where she remained until at least 1998. But there had been doubts about her authenticity (and that of the other artefacts) right from the start (though these apparently didn't reach print until as late as 1986). Rumours circulated at the excavation site, and in the relatively small world of British archaeology, that she was a fake. 

Armstrong's excavation notes from the day when she was discovered are inadequate; on this day the other experienced excavators were absent from the site (apparently because Armstrong had sent them away); the objects look as if they could have been newly carved; their arrangement around an 'altar' just seems too good to be true; although other stone phalluses have been found in Britain, and round objects that might be intended to represent testicles have also been found, as far as I know (but I'm not an expert) no other phallus representing penis and testicles together has been found; no other Venus figurine has been found in Britain. What's more, one of the excavators, Mrs Ethel Rudkin, is known to have carved at least one other small chalk figurine.

In 1983 Kevin Leahy of Scunthorpe Museum met the then 91-year-old Ethel Rudkin. She had been a close friend of Armstrong and a fellow excavator on the Grimes Graves dig. She told Leahy that in 1939, on the day of the discovery, she had been sitting in the car waiting for Armstrong. When he appeared he handed the Venus figurine and phallus to her, asking her to look after them while he went back to the pit. While he was away, she took a nearby piece of chalk and fashioned an approximate copy of the Venus and placed it next to the real one on the car seat. When Armstrong returned and saw what she'd done he was furious. The situation escalated into a row and the end of their relationship.**

Rudkin produced, from under her bed, the copy she'd made in the car 43 years ago and presented it to Leahy as a donation to his museum. (If it's still there I don't know.) However, she insisted that she had no doubts about the authenticity of the figurine found by Armstrong.***

So is the figurine a forgery? As Rudkin showed, it's not hard to carve similar sculptures. Did Armstrong fake the Venus himself, presumably as a way of gaining publicity for his dig and academic kudos for himself? This could explain his anger when presented with Rudkin's copy (perhaps believing that she was mocking him), and why he'd sent the other diggers away. He seems to have kept hold of the figurine for the rest of his life; did he want to keep it away from objective scrutiny? On the other hand, if he was going to forge the figurine, why not forge excavation notes too? What's more, I can't find any suggestion that he was ever suspected of underhand activities, and it seems unlikely that a respected archaeologist would have behaved in such a way.

The consensus of opinion is that Armstrong wasn't the forger, but that he was hoaxed. Someone else made the figurine and placed it for him to find, either as a good-natured joke, or possibly maliciously (though I've no idea why anyone would want to do this). Could this someone have been Rudkin? It's obviously impossible to say. But if I'd perpetuated a famous hoax I'd want, sooner or later, to have my skill and audacity recognised, if only after my death. It's hard to imagine that the hoaxer, if there was one, didn't boast about it to friends, or write something down about it, rather than let their name and their part in the sting vanish. Maybe, however, the hoaxer's intention was to eventually come clean, but they were prevented from doing so because they died; after all, this was summer 1939, and many of the people at the Grimes Graves dig would have gone off to fight in the following months and years, and some of them would have been killed.

On the British Museum website the Curator's Comments end: 'It is unlikely that their status [ie of the Grimes Graves artefacts] will finally be settled until similar objects are found elsewhere, or someone writes their memoirs.' These comments are dated 1990, when it was possible that someone involved in the dig was still alive and might yet spill the beans; a quarter of a century later that possibility has all but disappeared. So we'll just have to wait and see if another British prehistoric Venus ever emerges from the ground.

But is it possible that in the last quarter of a century a scientific test has been developed that could confirm the figurine's status? I have an idea that there is a method of dating objects by determining how long light has been playing on their surfaces. I don't know if this can be used on chalk carvings, but if it can, wouldn't it be good if we could find out if the Venus is 4000 years old, or a mere 76?

And wouldn't all this make a terrific television documentary, one with factual voiceovers and talking heads alternating with slightly dodgy reconstructions with actors no one's ever heard of playing the protagonists? There's the added excitement of having two parallel narratives, one in which the figurine is genuine, the other in which she's a fake. In the former, I can envisage a scene in which Armstrong discovers the Venus with great elation, but then in a dramatic reversal of fortune has the big row with Rudkin in the car. In the latter, the skulduggery of the villain (or villains) will be very entertaining - we could be cheering them along or booing them, whichever the screenwriter decides. It's got everything: a love interest (Armstrong and Rudkin), passion, betrayal, a plucky hero (Armstrong, in version A), a roguish crook (Armstrong, in version B, or Rudkin, or A.N.Other), forgery, men in tweed jackets chewing pipes, and all set against a background of the impending war. And at the climax (assuming that the scientific test is a reality) the truth about the Venus will be revealed. Either she's a fake, so it becomes detective story, or she's real, which is even more exciting. I shall be content with just a small percentage of the proceeds in lieu of a fee when it gets made.

* in The Civilization of the Goddess, 1991, she says of the Grimes Graves Venus and her attendant objects, 'These were all placed in a spent shaft and are clearly a religious feature that must be accepted by even the most intransigent doubters.' An ironical comment given the severe doubts that now plague the artefacts.

** I'm sure I've read elsewhere that not only were Armstrong and Rudkin (though presumably this is her married name and at the time she would have been known by her maiden name) 'close friends' but were actually engaged, and that this row ended their engagement. But unfortunately I can no longer find this reference, so perhaps I've invented this detail.

*** My source for the story about Leahy and Rudkin is Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley, Century, London, 1998. Rudgley however doesn't give his source for the story.

UPDATE 2020: The story of the Grimes Graves Venus has some remarkable parallels with that of an alleged 17,000 year old Venus excavated in Romania in 2019.

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