This astonishing idol is one of the last of an artistic tradition that characterised Europe and the Middle East for almost twenty thousand years. The Neolithic period was a time of enormous change, of transitions from a highly mobile foraging existence to one of sedentary agriculturalism, accompanied by social and biological changes as the nature of society itself was transformed. The earliest manifestations of this are to be found in the Near and Middle East, where tiny villages in fertile areas grew and grew as the new ways of life began to take effect.
Perhaps most dramatic, for our purposes, were the magico-religious transformations. Humanity did not always make sculpture, but when they did (around 30-25,000 years ago) one of the first things they made were images of well-nourished women such as this. Interpreting the significance of art at such a remove from ourselves is of course problematic, but it seems likely that wealth and prosperity, and thus stability and fertility, were seen as one in the eyes of early people. Indeed, there are still areas of the world where such beliefs persist, where a large frame indicates a comfortable background and a good “bet” for matrimonial and reproductive purposes. One might also hazard that the huge investment of time and energy needed to make a figure such as this would not have been expended on a whim. The Neolithic village of Catal Huyuk is famous for producing works such as this, as well as the earliest “cult” behaviour in the form of white-plastered temples seemingly dedicated to a divinity symbolised by bulls. The temple of Stonehenge is a notable example of the social changes being wrought, and there are hundreds of similar structures that appeared across Europe in the wake of the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture that distinguished the Neolithic farmers from their Mesolithic predecessors.
It is figures such as this, however, that have the oldest and most significant artistic heritage. The current example is among the best-preserved and beautiful currently known, and has the additional rarity of being made in stone when the majority of pieces from this period are made from ceramic. It portrays an exceedingly well-nourished woman in an advanced state of pregnancy, presenting her breasts in her hands. Her head is comparatively nugatory, with a band above her eyes that perhaps represents some form of headwear. Her eyes and open mouth are simple hollows, with a snub nose; the head as a whole sits almost entirely upon the shoulders, without a neck, and the chin is sunk into the roll of fat on the upper chest. Her arms, which are almost as thick as her head, circle outwards to support massive pendulous breasts that lie atop her protruding stomach. The shape of her body, other than its obesity, seems to suggest that she is older rather than young – perhaps in her 40s, although this would count as fairly elderly at the time (most people had died by their late 30s). The stomach, with marked umbilicus, hangs down to the pubis area, and is skillfully undercut to reveal a smaller fat roll beneath it. The back is similar, with rolls of fat on the shoulders giving way to large buttocks that overhang to the upper thigh. The legs are nugatory; in Upper Palaeolithic examples these are usually scratched and damaged as a result of sticking them into the ground so that the figure could stand upright. However, this period evidently marks a change in behaviour as to their usage, for the legs are undamaged. Patina is impressive, with use wear on the stomach, breasts and shoulders; it is probable that this pertains to some form of special treatment the figure received. Its function is unclear, but it is hard to overlook the evident fecundity of the sculpture, and it is probably endowed with some form of powers in the eyes of the society that produced it. As fertility was the single most important factor in the eyes of ancient groups and most modern peoples in non-industrial countries, it is not unreasonable to assume such a function for this piece. Regardless of ancient function, however, this is an exceptional piece of ancient art that would take poll position in any collection fortunate enough to contain it.