Art

Venus Pudica on a bone distaff from Capidava

MNIR
Antiquity
6th century AD
Cow radius
Carving, sculpting
21.50cm in length and between 0.70 – 1.02cm in width
MNIR
 
 
 
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    Venus Pudica on a bone distaff from Capidava

    Text: dr. Alexandru Rațiu; photo: Marius Amarie


    Archaeological context and dating

    The distaff represents a recent find (during the campaign of 2016) from Capidava, a roman and early-byzantine fort on the Danube limes (provinces of Moesia Inferior/Scythia Minor), as part of the research of the building often referred in as the ‘late Principia’. The edifice is situated near the south corner of the fort, in the vicinity of the great Granary, the largest building discovered so for inside the fort.

    The research of the Principia from Capidava started in the 1950s when several early medieval hovels, that were overlapping the building, were excavated. In 2013 the research was resumed and continued year on year until present. As part of the 2016 campaign, while excavating the 6th century Romano-Byzantine level, the last ancient occupational level of the building, a finger-distaff was found on the battered clay floor. The distaff was found on the floor approximately one meter away from the north-eastern precinct wall of the edifice close to its eastern corner. On the same floor, several other discoveries were made such as a lamp of the Danubian type, specific to the 6th century and several fragments of African Red Slip Ware plates easily datable in the same period. Furthermore, the context of the distaff can be easily datable based on additional artefacts found in other rooms of the building, but within the same stratigraphic sequence such as several ceramic lamps, from the same Danubian type, as well as amphorae dating from the 6th century.

     

    THE VENUS FINGER-DISTAFF FROM CAPIDAVA

    The bone distaff from Capidava consists of a flat shaft decorated on the upper end with a feminine figure, supposedly the goddess Venus, and a circular ring on its lower end. The „statuette” of Venus holds her falling gown with her left hand while she covers her left breast with her right hand. It is a special type of depiction of Venus, in which the goddess shyly covers her nakedness (the so-called Venus Pudica pose, from lat. ‘Pudica’ = ‘modest’). The shaft bears no decoration. At the lower end the ring is decorated with vegetation motifs near the shaft and two small buttons at the lower extremity. 

    The distaff was made from a carved a cow radius, carefully sculpted and filed into the current shape. The preservation state is intact, has no missing parts and the only alteration of the piece are the traces of usage present on the lower part of the shaft and the ring.

    The dimensions of the distaff are: 21.50cm in length and between 0.70 – 1.02cm in width; the goddess statuette has a height of 5.37cm and a width of 1.37cm; the ring is 2.50cm in diameter with a width of 0.5cm. 

    The distaff is, together with a spindle, the most important instrument for the production of yarn in antiquity. The washed and plucked raw wool is first put in the form of a coarse knot on the distaff. Then it is spun into a fine thread by the use of a spindle. The distaffs differ in shape and size, some of them are longer, the waist distaffs for example, others are smaller and are hand-held, a subcategory being the finger-distaff. 

    Finger-distaffs are a special form of ancient spinning tools, having a ring at the lower end of the rod, which the spinner strides over the ring finger. Their upper end often carries a figurative decor. This type of utensil is usually made from wood, glass, bronze, bone or ivory. 

     

    Symbolism of Venus Finger-Distaffs

    In a study of women burials from Roman Pannonia is stated that the distaff and/or spindle are always found in graves of adult women. Not surprisingly, all the distaffs found in burials are unused, which is valid for most of the artefacts found in graves: they were all purchased for the burial purpose. In my opinion the presence of a spindle and/or distaff in a grave, or depicted on a gravestone for that matter, has clearly to do with the burial ritual and have a symbolic value, as well as other objects present in the grave. 

    However, the finger-distaff discovered at Capidava is used, which information changes the discussion altogether. 

    Some experts argue that the distaffs present in graves are a symbol of marriage and emphasize the faithfulness, respectability and industriousness of the deceased wife. However, this conclusion is partially true as based on a survey made on a group of fifteen funerary stelae from Pannonia on which spindles and distaffs are present, only in one case the woman was properly and legally married according to Roman laws. Therefore, one can argue that probably the institution of marriage was not the primary characteristic that these objects were trying to emphasize but rather the attributes of virtuousness and faithfulness of Roman women. 

    The ring distaffs are more often discovered throughout the eastern part of the Roman Empire, from Pannonia, the Lower Danube and beyond. The Venus distaffs are somewhat rarer, but even within this category there are different subcategories. There are three different poses in which the allegedly goddess Venus is depicted: naked lady with a child in her arms, half-naked girl in the Venus Pudica pose and naked girl standing and holding a fascia pectoralis over her breasts.

    Venus embodies feminine beauty and eroticism and is also the ancestral mother of the Roman people, as Venus Genetrix. It often appears as hand jewellery or in some cases on hand utensils and is frequently related with fertility and sexual health.

    The Venus Pudica pose was introduced by Praxiteles in the 4th c. B.C. with his creation, Aphrodite of Cnidos, and was reproduced by various artist ever since, throughout history. The image of the beautiful naked woman barely covering her nakedness has become a symbol of feminity, sexuality, frailty of the fairer sex etc. Taking into account the different opinions on the subject I incline to concur with the scepticism of Judith Pasztókai-Szeöke for the identity of the depicted figure. 

     

    Representation of ring-distaffs on sculptural monuments

    The ring-distaffs are represented on several funerary monuments, some of them discovered in Asia Minor. The headstone of Apphe and Nicandros, from Iznic (Turkey), dated in the 3rd c. A.D., depicts in its upper registry the usual day-to-day utensils of a woman, among which a ring-distaff. The same situation is encountered with another headstone dedicated to a woman named Ia, again from Iznic, but dated in the 2nd c. A.D., on which the ring-distaff is represented together with the spindle. As mentioned earlier, in Pannonia there are fifteen headstones depicting distaffs and spindles. All of them are dated in the first two centuries A.D. and are similar to their Asian parallels. 

    The depiction of the distaff and spindle on the headstones of women is evidence for the symbolic value of these objects. Their role is to emphasize and project onto posterity that the departed was a virtuous matron and a faithful wife.

     

    Parallels and similar objects

    Until now, we know only of one close analogy for our distaff in the province of Scythia Minor, namely the piece discovered at Dinogetia  and published by Gh. Ștefan in 1940. Even though the archaeological context of the discovery is not clearly mentioned, the piece from Dinogetia is a remarkable analogy, being found inside the fort and most probably in a Late Roman or even Early-Byzantine context. Another close parallel is the distaff discovered at Porolissum, in Dacia, which even though fragmentary, bears a close resemblance to the Capidava distaff. The representation of Venus on distaffs is encountered more often in the oriental provinces, but there are also western examples. The earliest dated distaff, 1st c. A.D., was discovered in the necropolis from Viminacium, province of Moesia Superior. Another two early dated discoveries come from the German provinces, from Lauriacum and Haselbach, both dated in the 2nd c. A.D. Other such distaffs, but without a certain discovery place, are part of the collections of the Nemzeti Múzeum in Budapest, and by comparison they were dated in the 2nd or 3rd c. A.D. 

    Other parallels, dated late in the 4th c., were found closer in Bosporus, Salona, but also in Egypt, at Madytos, or in Asia Minor, at Ephesus and other unidentified places. There are a few other examples not mentioned here, but the image is clear: the area of diffusion for this type of instrument, and this type of décor, is wide. There is a predilection of discoveries in the Eastern part of the Empire, but I believe that it is only the state of research and not the historical reality. 

    Most of the mentioned distaffs are found in graves, with the singular exception from Dinogetia, and are without marks of usage, practically brand new. They were put there to emphasize the good and feminine qualities of the departed. Some researchers are of the opinion that all the Venus distaffs are only symbolic and not for usage, or that they are merely wedding gifts. As for the distaff from Capidava, we propose another theory altogether. The artefact has serious marks of usage, naturally, on the handheld parts: the shaft and the ring. The goddess on top of the shaft has no usage marks, which is only natural because only the unspun wool was fastened there. Moreover, from the same context two spindle whirls were found, attesting that the distaff was in fact used for spinning wool.

     

    Conclusions and interpretations

    The symbolism behind the carefully carved distaffs is deeper than the usual house chores for which they were intended. In ancient times spinning was one of the domestic duties of women. In Roman society spinning took a new and more important symbolism. Spinning utensils characterize a Roman woman as a virtuous and industrious, a real mistress of the house. From the second millennium BC, up to Late Antiquity, spindle and distaff are regarded as statute symbols of the distinguished and modest wife. One of the later dated (6th c. A.D.) representations of women spinning is in Vienna Gennesis, and depicts the allegory of the good and the bad wife; the bad wife tries to take other women’s husbands while the good wife is spinning (with a hand distaff no less!) and raises her children.

    The distaff discovered at Capidava is the latest of this type and also the only one found in a clear housing context and it was clearly used according with its original function. The small statuette carved on top of the object may or may not be a late representation of Venus Pudica; it may well be a syncretic symbol of fertility combining older beliefs with Roman tradition. 

    The novelty in this discovery, the real find, is not the artefact per se, but the endurance of an early Roman, even republican, set of values transposed in a housing complex from the 6th c. on the outskirts of the Empire. Making wool with a beautifully carved bone distaff and a spindle in the comfort of one’s own home represents the genuine image of Roman living in a time when the grasp on civilisation is thin and the Dark Ages are only a few decades away.