Orkney Venus or Westray Wifie: The power of sexual archetypes

Posted on June 16, 2010

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The daily Scotsman reported on June 15 that “The Orkney Venus has been named in a shortlist of three for the Best Archaeological Discovery category in the 2010 biannual British Archaeological Awards”.

The find is truly important: the object under consideration is almost unprecedented in Neolithic archaeology of Great Britain, and is visually striking, as the trailer for the Historic Scotland exhibition demonstrates.

Even though it is likely that few readers of this blog post have previously heard of the “Orkney Venus”, the name itself undoubtedly conjured up images: the Venus de Milo on the one hand, the “Venus of Willendorf” on the other.

Naming an ancient image “Venus” brings with it a host of associations: with feminine beauty, sexuality, and a kind of taken-for-granted exhibition of the unclothed female body for what is presumed to be a male viewer.

The name “Orkney Venus” imposes a universal meaning on the object recovered a year ago in Scotland, an object created 5000 years ago.

So it is especially interesting that articles about the object record an alternative name: it was “dubbed the ‘Westray Wifie’ by the islanders”, the website Orkneyjar (Orkney Heritage) notes, continuing that it “was dubbed the “Orkney Venus” by the national media”.

The universalizing name is based on a claim that the figure “bears some resemblance to the prehistoric ‘Venus’ carvings, from elsewhere in Europe,which have rounded heads, large breasts and exaggerated hips.”

But in fact, the Scottish figure looks nothing like these other (mostly much earlier, Palaeolithic) figures. It is flat, with few modeled features, with only a round tab above the blocky area interpreted as a body. There is nothing that looks like definition of hips; the features interpreted as breasts are two incised circles at the upper right and left on the larger tab interpreted as the body.

So what resemblance justifies the common name? in a word: none. The act of naming the object imposes an interpretation on it by linking it to the Palaeolithic figures and to the classic sculpture for which these, in turn, were named.

Which brings us back to the local name for the object. Westray in place of Orkney because Westray is the specific island where the object was found. And “Wifie” because– well, let’s turn to an unofficial website, a blog about Orkney archaeological tours, for clarification:

It’s quite crude as you can see from the pic & some wit here has started folk calling it the ‘Westray wife’ – there was a letter in to the Radio Orkney letter slot (on Wednesday mornings & often very entertaining) by someone (presumably a Westray man) making some cheeky remarks about the appearance of Westray wives in general & their resemblance to the Westray figure – luckily for him Radio Orkney don’t read out the names of the senders!

(To get the full effect of this, it helps to be looking at the image of the object.)

Venus or Wifie? either of these uses modern stereotypes to impress a meaning on a sculpture made so long ago that we have to struggle to even imagine how people lived. As I wrote in Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, talking about objects like this as “Venus figurines” is part of a way of looking that projects modern concerns onto the past:

Taken as an idealization of femininity, it has been easily assimilated to contemporary ideas about sex and gender, even to the point of being considered a form of early pornography. This interpretation defines a single way of being female. This universalized female role places biological reproduction and generalized fertility at the core of a feminine identity shared by all women.

…the assumption is that people in the past shared with the present a gender system that divides human beings into two opposing categories based on reproductive sexuality. Breasts, hips, and buttocks become sites for identifying female bodies; genitalia and facial hair serve as signs of maleness. The presence of any one of these is enough to allow assignment to one category or the other.

What this means is that we can never discover alternative concepts of gender, because we are always forcing the actual evidence to fit a pre-existing model.