The Venus de Milo’s Arms

Keywords: drop spindle, spinning, cloth making, history of textiles, women’s history

Not surprisingly, many pieces of art are much more impressive when seen in person than when seen as a picture. For me, this was especially true for the Venus de Milo. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of art – even without her arms. Now, I never considered the possibility that someone would be able to make an evidence-based argument for what the position of her arms were. But I came across such an argument in Woman’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This is an excellently researched discussion of the history of making cloth.

Venus de Milo (from Wikipedia)

To understand the argument, it is necessary to know what a drop spindle is. It is a weighted stick with a hook that is used to spin yarn or thread. Prior to the invention of the spinning wheel (between 500 and 1200 CE), all yarn was spun by spinning a stick. The drop spindle was, and is, a primary form. (It’s pretty awesome to contemplate that all early cloth – clothes to bedding to sails – was produced from manually spun yarn.)

Drop spindles (from Wikipedia)

It takes a lot of time to produce quantities of yarn. So, most women throughout pre-technological history spent as much time spinning as they could – which turns out to be a large percentage of their time. Even today, fiber artists sometimes spin while walking down the street. Barber documents that that even queens spun. Thus, the idea that the goddess Venus was associated with textile creation and spun is consistent with the culture of the times. Examination of the arm positions and musculature still extent on the statue, along with the existence of other statues holding drop spindles, provides an evidence-based argument that the Venus de Milo was using a drop spindle.

The truly amazing thing here is that modern archeological and historical techniques can do something like reconstruct a statue’s missing arms.

One thought on “The Venus de Milo’s Arms

  1. Caveat: My knowledge of the subject is limited to what you wrote and the 5 minutes of subsequent googling. So I apologize for any misinterpretations/misrepresentations.

    While there are hints of this interpretation going all the way back to 1958 in the book “Venus de Milo, The Spinner: The Link Between a Famous Art Mystery and Ancient Fertility Symbols”, the idea that intrigues me the most is whether this is another opportunity for AI to assist us in historical reconstruction? Of the vast number of possible arm positions what is the most likely given the limiting factor of mythological/historical context?

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