On the Liguria coast from Italy to the French border are the entrances of the complex of the caverns of the Balzi Rossi (literally red leaps). The name of the locality derives from the colour of the limestone walls that, because of the iron mineral presence, oxidises to a red colour. The complex is composed of numerous coves and shelters, including Grotta dei Fanciulli, Riparo Lorenzi Grotta di Florestano, Grotta del Caviglione, Barma Grande, Barma del Bauso da Ture (now destroyed), Grotta del Principe, Grotta Gerbai, Grotta Costantini, Riparo Mochi, Riparo Bombrini, Cavernette della cava, Grotta Voronov, and Grotta Grimaldi. There have been about 15 female/Goddess figurines found in these caves (dating from about 20,000 years ago) since excavations first began in the 1850s, and have been called “The greatest series ever found in one place in Western Europe”.
Excavations began in about eight of the caves, which lie between Ventimiglia in Italy and Menton in France, and attracted the attention of Prince Albert Grimaldi of Monaco, which in the 1880s gave the sites the collective name of Grimaldi after the Monacan dynasty.
These excavations, undertaken by Louis Alexandra Julilien between 1883 and 1885, were kept secret until the finding of the Brassempouy ‘Venus’ in a cave in SW France in 1895 [see GA19 p.3]. More recently, between 1928 and 1959, regular diggings were executed by A.C. Blanc, L. Cardini and To Mochi, on behalf of the Italian Institute of Human Palaeontology.
In several of the caves remains were found of Cro-Magnon people (now called EEMH – European early modern humans). In the Grotta dei Fanciulli cave at a lower level were found Mousterian tools, associated with Neanderthals (from 50,000-30,000 years ago), and in a layer dated to the lower Aurignacian period (dated to 47,000- 41,000 years ago) were found two skeletons, one of a woman aged 50+ and the other of an adolescent boy. Also found were skeletons of two children with snail-shell belts. This shows that the caves have had a long sequence of human activity, starting before the arrival of fully modern humans and continuing to the end of the last Ice Age (about 10,000 years ago). Remains in the Barma Grande cave have been dated to 25,000 years ago (Upper Paleolithic).
It was from the Barma Grande cave that five figurines were found, the most magnificent of which was the Barma Grande ‘Venus of Menton’, who was the centrepiece of the Ice Age art exhibition in the British Museum last year, and was dated to about 22,000 years ago.
She is made of yellow steatite, and measures 47mm high. She has an oval head, bowed forward, without facial features, although her hair is indicated hanging down in a sort of ponytail between her shoulders. There are thin, barely indicated arms which are held against the body and curve in below her breasts. Her shoulders are narrow and rounded above her prominent breasts. Her oval stomach is outlined by an incised line, below which there is an open Y-groove, indicating the top of her thighs and her pubic triangle. Her lower legs are missing, but the well-rounded edge at the level of her knees may indicate that she was originally made that way. We can only speculate as to her original use, but the fact that she was found (virtually) intact indicates that she had been cared for, and may have deliberately been buried. Jill Cook in ‘Ice Age Art’ [British Museum Press, 2013] claims that she has the body of a “mature woman who has had children”, but that is debatable. However, she may have been a talisman or Goddess amulet that invoked the power of safe birthing.
A similar figure was also found in the same cave, though this one was made of mammoth ivory. That is curious in itself as mammoths were not living at the time in Italy and finding their remains is rare. Scholars have speculated that the ivory figurines were either carved far from Italy and then transported to the Mediteranean shores or carved on the spot (or near it) using imported raw material. As a result of this scarcity, ivory items of any kind are exceedingly rare in Ligura, Italy, and in southeastern France.
She is known as ‘Abrachiale’ (meaning ‘no arms’) and measures 67.6 mm high. A thick coat of varnish applied by Jullien, her discoverer, has given the figurine a red to yellowish-red colour, making it impossible to tell if red ochre had ever been applied to its surface. Her nearly circular head lacks any indication of facial features or hair and no arms or hands are present. Her head is not tilted downwards, as in other figurines. Her roughly hemispherical breasts are large and separated from each other by a deep groove. Protruding even more than her breasts is her oval-shaped enlarged abdomen. Her pubic region is highly unusual because a deep U-shaped groove 8.5 mm wide extends from her mid-thigh into her crotch, and centred in this groove, at the base of the abdomen, is a small, carefully carved ridge in the form of an inverted crescent which is in the correct position to represent enlarged labia minora. She is an anatomically-correct Goddess figurine!
Another figurine found in the Barma Grande cave was the one misnamed ‘La Polichinelle’ (the puppet).
She is 61mm high and carved in green steatite. She has pronounced buttocks and a projecting belly that emphasise her fertility aspects. Jill Cook suggests that her vulva is dilated for birth. Her legs are tapering, and no knees are shown.
Another curious figure from the Barma Grande cave has two faces and a perforated neck.
Made of dark green steatite, she is 62mm high. She has a different face carved on both sides of her head, and a small perforation underneath, showing that she may have been worn as a pendant. There are no forearms, and her breasts are oval-shaped. She has a prominent belly, and her buttocks are flattened. A small open vulva has been carved, and her knees and feet are indistinct or absent.
Another figure with a perforation from the Barma Grande cave is known as the ‘Red Ochre Venus’. She is 75mm high and, like the Abrachiale figure, is made from mammoth ivory, though this one was covered with a very thick layer of red ochre. Her oval face has no facial features but her hair forms a thick coiffure framing her face and tapering to two points that end on the backs of her shoulders (braids?). Although her upper arms are clearly carved at her sides there is no trace of forearms or hands. Although her breasts are oblong and in profile appear cylindrical, they do not rest on her round and protruding abdomen. Her enlarged pubic triangle is highlighted, but her vulva is not well marked. Her legs taper but once again are broken at the knees.
Another piece, probably from Barma Grande cave, is the fragment called ‘The Bust’. It was made from a dark-green chlorite stone and consists only of a head and upper torso. The head is circular and, although the eyes and nose are carved, the mouth exists only in a colour variation in the stone that creates the false impression of a horizontal incision where the mouth should be. The right breast has been broken but the surviving breast is oval and a notch between the breasts makes it appear pendulous with the nipple pointed downward. Microscopic traces of red ochre were also found ‘trapped’ under the grey sand at the bottom of incisions present on the surface.
A similar figurine to the La Polichinelle figure is one called the Venus el Rombo, or Venus de Losange, (the rhomboid or lozenge shaped Venus). There is a groove marking the outline of her hair. Her breasts are elongated and large, and she has no arms. Her protruding belly is circular in shape, and she has wide hips, with the buttocks flattened. Her vulva is open, and once again her legs finish or are broken off.
This ‘open vulva’ can also be found on five of the eight figures from the neighbouring cave of Grotte du Prince. One of the most striking of these is the figure called ‘The Hermaphrodite’ because of the bulge at the bottom of the torso, which was interpreted as a penis or testicular pouch, but is now thought to be the head of a baby emerging at birth! Its hair is depicted in a similar way to the ivory figurine in red ochre. She was carved from translucent green soapstone and stands 52mm high. If this is a baby emerging, then this is a striking ‘birthing Goddess’ figurine.
Finally, there are a number of idiosyncratic and curious figurines. The ‘Venus with Goitre’ has only one torso and one head, but underneath, she has two pubic triangles and two opposite legs. The figure is made of ivory and is 45 mm high. Her face is ovoid, but there are no facial features shown, and no arms. However, there is a goitre at her neck. Her breasts are conical with the tips pointed down, her belly is prominent, her hips are wide, her buttocks flattened, and her vulva is open.
Then there are 2 greenish-yellow serpentine stylized figurines from Grotte du Prince, that may have been worn as pendants. ‘The woman with two heads’ is a tiny (27.5mm) figure with a highly polished surface and traces of red ochre. Two ovoid featureless heads face in opposite directions, joined by a bridge.The body is made up of a narrow torso, no arms, projecting breasts and belly, and legs that taper to a point at the knees. The Double figure is even more complex, depicting a woman back-toback with a stylised animal, possibly a big cat.
Whilst sharing some characteristics, each of these Grimaldi figurines from the Balzi Rossi caves are unique and individual. From 20,000-30,000 years ago, they are remarkable expressions of human creativity and a love of the female form, probably as Goddess, for sacred and periaptic purposes.