|McDermott - Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines
Previous: Stylistic Variability and Choices in Visual Information
Comparing Modern Bodies with Prehistoric ArtifactsThere is an obvious relationship to be seen between the stylistic attributes of Upper Paleolithic representations of the female body in general and PKG-style images in particular and the structural regularities of form and content contained in those minimal viewpoints needed by a woman to see her own body. Personal experimentation will demonstrate that, without external technological assistance, a reasonably inclusive inventory requires at least five or six primary vistas: (1) head and face, (2) superior anterior or upper frontal surface of body, (3) inferior anterior or lower frontal surface of body, (4) inferior lateral or lower side surface of body, and (5) inferior posterior surface of body, including (a) under-the-arm views and (b) an over-the-shoulder view.
1. Faceless heads. Although the seat of visual
self-awareness, the objective appearance of the head and face is simply
not visible from a self-viewing perspective. This logically explains why -- although
there are regional variations in shape, size, and position in the heads
of PKG-style pieces -- virtually all are rendered without facial features
and most seem turned down toward the body as if to bring it into view12.
The absence of direct visual knowledge may also explain why the most commonly
encountered form of head is a generalized round shape vaguely reminiscent
of an emergent mushroom "cap" or "button." Not only is this form found
on the best-preserved French, Austrian, and Russian figurines but it predominates
among fragments, strongly indicating that most missing heads should be
similarly reconstructed (Abramova 1967b:pls. 9 and 10). Its stylistic dominance
is further supported by its presence on several variant figurines made
from mammoth phalanges or metacarpals, thought to represent squatting pregnant
women, from Predmosti and Avdeevo (Jelinek 1975:figs.642, 643)
Sometimes these sketches are little more than tusks with a possible head differentiated at the narrow end, such as Pavlov no. 32460 (B. Klima, personal communication, August 9, 1988) and Avdeevo no. 4 (Abramova 1967b:pl. 27), or ivory rods with a button or caplike "head" at one end as seen in earlier Aurignacian examples (see fig. 4).
It is possible that fabrication of a human figurine involved first differentiating
a "head" from a "body" of material and then following an essentially logical
time-factored sequence which might remain unfinished. Both the autogenous
hypothesis and the evidence of these pieces, if they are unfinished, predict
that this emergent process began with the head, the seat of visual self-awareness,
and then employed the sequential movements necessary for complete visual
self-inspection with attention focused last on the central parts of a woman's
body involved in reproduction. Pregnancy and self-inspection both involve
sequential stages whose typical time-factored progress might well be revealed
in the processes preserved in unfinished pieces. During pregnancy, some
parts of the body change while others remain the same, and the parts which
undergo the most change appear to be defined last in the fabrication process.
When viewed from above, most other apparent anatomical distortions or omissions of the upper body undergo similar realistic transformations. For example, PKG-style figurines commonly have what seems to be only an ill-proportioned, sharply tapering fragment of the upper arm represented, with the forearm merging into the side of the body. However, in looking down with arms at the side, a woman does see only the foreshortened front surface of her upper arm, with the forearms normally occluded below the breasts. Another convention explained by the foreshortening and occluding effect of a self-viewing perspective is the unnaturally large, elliptical navel located too close to the pubic triangle in several figurines.15 The annular depression surrounding the navel proper, seen obliquely from above, projects just this size ellipse, and when pregnant a woman cannot see the abdomen below the navel.
Also, the dual role of hands and arms as both agent of fabrication and model could relate to their variability and infrequent representation. Being in constant motion, they have no fixed point of regard in the visual field and perhaps in human memory. When arm and hands are crossed over the breasts, they present their narrowest aspect to the eye in an edge-on view, which suggests a rational origin for even the unusual thin "filiform" or threadlike arms of the well-known pieces from Lespugue and Willendorf. 16
3. Inferior anterior or lower frontal surface of body. A correctly foreshortened representation of the lower body seen from above would shrink or narrow toward the feet as if its true height had been compressed. Only the autogenous hypothesis renders sensible the compressed stature (or atrophy) of the lower body, including the diminutive feet, preserved in some PKG-style figurines. The lower body and feet are optically correct for the point of view employed in their representation.17
It is also a fact that for a pregnant woman, inspection of the upper "half" of the body terminates at the navel with the curving outline of the distending abdomen. She must bend at the waist to bring her lower "half" into view. Thus the gravid female's direct visual experience of her full-length body involves combining two discrete views which meet at the abdomen near the level of the navel-which also, contrary to anatomical fact, appears to be the widest part of the body. When she looks down over the intervening mass of her growing abdomen, she does not see that the vertical midpoint and greatest physical width of her body really intersect at the level of the hip joint. The apparent misrepresentation of height and width routinely seen in PKG-style images is actually a sensible symmetrical combination of these otherwise discontinuous views. The necessity of uniting the two views from above and below the intervening mass of the woman's pregnant abdomen apparently produced the recurrent "lozenge composition" and the apparently incorrect proportions on which it is based (see fig 7).
4. Inferior lateral or lower side of body. When one rotates at the hips and raises the arm to look down obliquely in front of the shoulder, one sees the side of the body as expanding from the lower torso toward the buttocks before contracting as the eye encounters the more distant rectus femoris and vastus lateralis muscles of the thigh and the bulging gastrocnemius of the calf. The feet may or may not be visible, often being occluded by the intervening body, particularly the more rearward the angle of regard. The apparent cantilevering of the rectus femoris in front of the lower gastrocnemius is identical with the "bent-knee" posture seen in numerous otherwise erect Upper Paleolithic images of the human figure (see fig. 8). This oblique outline of the lower side not only coincides with the arrangement of muscles seen in this region for PKG-style images, but its content is identical with the information contained in the so-called buttocks or profile image which dominates the Magdalenian (Rosenfeld 1977:90; Bosinski and Fischer 1974; Bosinski 1991). The typical absence of the upper body, shoulders, arms, and head from the visual field when one looks down upon the inferior lateral surface of the body is congruent with their conspicuous absence in this later category of image.
Intergroup variation in the rotational effort expended in self-inspection could thus explain not only the general lateral displacement of mass that has been called steatotrochanteria or steatomeria but the observed continuum of regional variation in this "condition" as well. Many Russian pieces appear to have unnaturally long loins, flanks, or glutei medii above the sacral triangle and atrophied or disproportionately short buttocks below (Leroi-Gourhan 1968a:520), as would be consistent with considerable rotational effort. Less effort produces the complete occlusion of the buttocks below the tailbone, and this is the key to understanding an even more enigmatic distortion found farther west -- the representation of supposedly "upside down" buttocks (Luquet 1934:434-35). In the well-known ivory figurine from Lespugue, the figurine in yellow steatite from Grimaldi, the shattered ivory torso from Brassempouy known as the "dagger handle," and a fragment of fired clay found by Klima at Pavlov, a bar or bridge of material presumably representing the tailbone lies below the apparent gluteal cleavage separating the buttocks rather than above as would be anatomically correct (see figs. 3a, c). From a self-viewing perspective, what has been seen as the gluteal cleavage between the buttocks emerges instead as the furrow of the lower spine separating the lateral glutei medii. The actual gluteal groove and the buttocks proper, which objectively extend below the tailbone, have not been represented at all, since they are in fact completely occluded in anything less than the maximum possible rotation of the head and eyes to look under the arm. Figurines with what appear to be "upside down" buttocks actually correctly represent what can be seen in an under-the-arm view. As with pieces without faces and with forearms which disappear underneath the breasts, the general principle seems to be that what cannot be seen tends not to be represented.
An intermediate regional variation in self-inspection routines of the posterior is perhaps preserved in the arbitrary horizontal notch located immediately above the bottom edge of the atrophied "buttocks" of the Venus of Willendorf. This blunt geometric feature, which makes no anatomical sense from any point of view other than the self-viewing18, is optically transformed into a highly naturalistic foreshortened image of the lower back above a properly positioned tailbone carried above an oblique sliver of foreshortened buttocks (see fig. 10).