Wednesday, January 22, 2014

La Donna Lupa Paleolitica

What goes on in the minds of museum curators? I have puzzled over this question many times in the last few months as I have visited more museums than I usually do and been confronted by so many omissions, distortions and downright ignorance or sloppiness.

In Siem Reap, Cambodia a brand new museum, and the only room without labels or video is the one that depicts the apsaras. In the museum in Gela, Sicily the displays in the room with the most remarkable Medusa, are in darkness until I accidentally trip an alarm by getting too close to the display. At Mnajdra, Malta female figures are given non-gendered labels and compared to sumo wrestlers. This latter is an egregious distortion which can be put directly at the feet of the school headed by Colin Renfrew who is against all suggestion that women might have played significant roles in prehistoric and ancient societies. But he allows his photo to grace those same walls.

I visited the National Archaeological Museum in Ancona specifically to see the figure called La Donna Lupo Paleolitico. My first puzzle here is why the words used are 'lupo paleolitico' and not 'lupa paleolitica' which seems to me more accurate both in terms of content and grammar.I've had several thoughts on the matter:

Is it because women way back then were in such awe of the male of every species that the wolf head must be a male wolf?

Is it simply inculcated heteronormativity?

Is it because the word 'lupa' also connotes 'prostitute'?

Whatever the case, I am referring to her here as La Donna Lupa Paleolitica.

I travelled on the train from Rome at night, visited the museum in the morning and back to Rome that afternoon. It was worth making this flying visit because although the images on the internet are as good or better than anything I can manage, simply seeing this tiny art object is an experience in itself.

I went because this wolf woman, La Donna Lupa Paleolitica, is 300,000 years old. When I saw this the first time, I thought it must have been a typographic mistake. Most European paleolithic art is around 30,000 years old from what is called the Upper Paleolithic. Her provenance is from what is called the Lower Paleolithic (or paleolitico inferiore) which covers the time period 120,000 years to 700,000 years Before Present (BP).

I was wandering around the museum and couldn't find her, so I asked an attendant. She took me through four rooms into a tiny fifth room on the second floor and there she was. If I had not known about her, I probably would not have noticed her among the rocks and flints. If I hadn't asked, I'd have had trouble even though I have a good nose for these things.

She is around 10-12 cm high (4-5 inches). Her image is carved on a rock, or pebble as it is called in the museum brochure. You have to look closely to distinguish the form and this is most easily done by starting from her feet. Her calves and thighs are clearly drawn and across her thighs are some scorings (or scarrings?). Above and clearly delineated as an inverted triangle is the public area and in the centre a tiny diamond shape (could that be the clitoris?).

Above is the belly, slightly rounded though this woman is certainly not overfed. On the belly are visible 10 or 11 small marks. Again these could be scars or have some connection to counting. They do not appear to be randomly placed as they are evenly spaced in two roughly parallel lines.

Her arms are crossed in the form of an X above her belly. The fingers of one hand are clearly visible.  Her arms cover her belly but not her breasts and at her throat is a faintly visible what might be a pendant.

The most surprising element of this image, which up to this point is doggedly realistic, is that the woman has the head of a wolf. The two ears are up and alert, a single open eye is visible in the profile and the snout lifted to the air as if engaged in sniffing the wind.

If you turn the rock/pebble over there is another head carved there. At first I thought it a cow's head, but looking again it could be either a bear or another rounder-nosed wolf. Please let me know what you think.

You would think that such an incredible work of art would be deserving of a sign. No. Nothing. Just a small sign that says Tolentino (MC), presumably where she was found. Nothing to give her age, in itself extraordinary. And while she is named on the museum website, the museum itself is yet to catch up. I read through the illuminated signage for all the paleolithic and neolithic eras and no mention of her there and nothing even about the 300,000 year time period. It seems to me that the museum is doing itself a disservice, but worse is that women once again are. made invisible. If I were this museum's curator, I would be having exceptionally good photographs made of this. I would give her a glass case (with a few friendly companions) that named, dated and identified her.

I'd also be asking questions like:
what implement was used to make this drawing on this stone?
what can this image tell us about women in this society?
what can it tell us about the relationship between humans/women and animals/wolves?
what might this image mean?
is it suggestive of a spiritual or simply material connection between wolves and women?
what does the second head represent?
are there other similar works of art from this period?

Instead of a helmeted male head on the museum brochure, I would have a detail from this. Her age, in itself, ought to be enough reason for her to be widely known. The quality of the art is something to be admired.
The second oldest item in the museum is a 28,000-year-old female figure referred to as a Venere/Venus. She was found in a cave at Frasassi. She does have some prominence in the room before la donna lupa, as well as a sign and a name.

What is it that 'they' don't want us to know or think?

I apologise that these photos are not all that good. The conditions were not ideal. There is a photo available if you visit the following site (in Italian):

Thanks to Rosanna Fiocchetto for telling me about La Donna Lupa Paleolitica.

The above photos © Susan Hawthorne, 2014


  1. At 300,000 years old, this must be a Neanderthal artefact. The Cro-Magnon ancestors of modern humans didn't reach Europe before 30,000 years ago.

  2. Thank you for this. Neanderthal have bad press, perhaps it's unwarranted?

  3. Do you know anything more about this period in Europe?

  4. I don't believe that the artifact is 300,000 years old. The oldest known artworks are from the Aurignacian culture of the Upper Paleolithic.

  5. Anonymous, this is the only date given so far in the material I have seen. It's why I went to Ancona to see for myself and try to get more information.

  6. thank you Susan - excellent. There is nothing like SEEING the actual art - the personal reception of the light emitting from it … oh and I think that Neanderthals have had bad press.

    1. Thanks pagaian. I have written to the museum as I still want to know more about it. Real life seeing is different from seeing an image online.

  7. Thank you Susan for a stimulating blog - more questions than answers. Amazed about the age of this artefact. Had the image been of a male figure would its representation to the public and its place in the museum have been different? (one guess).

    1. It would be up in lights! Not in a back room, not in unavailable book, not unlabelled.