Where to start but with this, the oldest known ceramic in the world; discovered on July 13th 1925 in the paleolithic settlement of Dolní Věstonice, Moravia in what is now the Czech Republic.
This figurine is 4 1/2 inches tall and about 1 3/4 inches wide and is made from fired clay. The original is now too fragile to be exhibited full time (she was in two halves when excavated) and was last on display in September 2007 as part of an exhibition entitled the Mammoth Hunters at the Prague National Museum.
Like many of these prehistoric Venus figures she is not designed to stand up so may have been designed to be held, perhaps as part of a ceremony. The truth is that we have no idea about her purpose, just that many other similar statues have been found across Europe from a similar period (although there is a strange lack of proven examples from the Iberian Peninsula).
These figures, as they are some of the earliest representations of the naked female form, have attracted a lot (some would say a disproportionate) amount of study. It is generally agreed that they are supposed to represent a pregnant figure and therfore may have something to do with fertility. It is also theorised that pre-Christianity the earliest religions were female-centric with the concept of the Earth Mother as supreme being and that these figures represent the Earth Mother herself. There is no evidence for this, however, but certain writers have been known to use this theory to decry the crushing of female power by the early Christian church.
The Laugerie-Basse figure
The use of the Roman name for Aphrodite, Venus, for these figures as a type was initiated by the Marquis de Vibraye, who discovered the first of these figures to be excavated at Laugerie-Basse in the Dordogne in 1864. He named his find Vénus impudique (immodest Venus), as an academic word play on the term Venus pudica (modest Venus) used to describe the particular coy pose seen in the Botticelli picture at the top right of this page. The French figure has a clear representation of the vulva, hence his name for her.
The use of the word Venus stuck and has since been used for all such figures, even if they have nothing to do with Venus or, indeed, any particular Goddess as far as is known.