(By Sigurd Towrie -8/21/2009) – What has been hailed as Scotland’s earliest representation of a human has been unearthed in Westray.
When archaeologists, working at the Historic Scotland excavation at the Links of Noltland, brushed away the mud from a small piece of Neolithic carved sandstone, they saw a face staring back at them.
Following its discovery last week, the human figurine has been described as a “find of astonishing rarity”.
Measuring just 3.5cm by 3cm, it is the only known Neolithic carving of a human form to have been discovered in Scotland — with only two other examples in the whole of the British mainland.
One of the first to comment on the Westray find was Scotland’s culture minister, Michael Russell.
He said: “This is a find of tremendous importance – representations of people from this period are incredibly unusual in Britain.
“What we are seeing here is the earliest known human face in Scotland. It once again emphasises the tremendous importance of Orkney’s archaeology and also of the Links of Noltland site.”
The carving is flat, with a round head on top of a lozenge-shaped body. Careful examination reveals what could be a face, with heavy brows, two dots for eyes and an oblong for a nose. Other scratches on top of the skull could be hair. Interestingly, the figure’s eyes/brows are identical to the “eyebrow motif” pecked carvings found in the southernmost chambered cairn on the Holm of Papa Westray.
A pair of circles on the chest are being interpreted as representing either breasts or some form of dress fastening, and arms have been etched at either side.
A regular pattern of crossed markings on the reverse could suggest the fabric of the woman’s clothing.
The Westray figure — which has been dubbed the “Orkney Venus” by the national media — bears some resemblance to the prehistoric “Venus” carvings, from elsewhere in Europe,which have rounded heads, large breasts and exaggerated hips.
Richard Strachan, project manager and senior archaeologist with the Historic Scotland cultural resources team, explained how the discovery was made.
“The find was made by archaeologist, Jakob Kainz. It looked like the stone had been carved. As some of the mud crumbled off he saw an eye, then another and a nose, then a whole face staring back.
“It was one of those ‘eureka’ moments. None of the archaeology team have seen anything like it before, it’s incredibly exciting. The discovery of a Neolithic carving of a human was quite a moment for everyone to share in.”
The building being excavated was once a free-standing farmhouse, surrounded by a wall that was carefully built to look impressive, and standing within a network of fields. After the main period of occupation was over, it appears the farmhouse had secondary, less formal uses – perhaps as a store or holding pen for animals.
As the building decayed, it began to fill with rubble and midden. The figurine was found among this midden, suggesting it came from a time after the structure’s use as a farmhouse had ended.
Mr Strachan added: “With some of the objects found, you might think they had been left behind, perhaps on a shelf, and just fell down and became buried. But with something this fine and unusual it begs the question of whether it may have been deposited there intentionally, perhaps as some act of closure after the building’s main use was over.”
What the carving was for is uncertain, but it may have had a symbolic purpose — the lack of wear and tear suggests it was not regularly handled.
The find will now be reported to the Crown Office as Treasure Trove. If the Crown Office decides that the item should be in a public collection, museums will be permitted to bid for it.
• In a further development, the archaeologists have now discovered what appear to be the ritually deposited skulls of ten cattle built into the wall of a Neolithic structure that may have been associated to the main farmhouse.
Some of the skulls are interlocking and all appear to be positioned upside down, with horns sticking into the ground.
Links of Noltland
The excavation history
Archaeologists returned to the Links of Noltland prehistoric settlement in February 2007, 26 years after the original excavations, after concerns that recently-exposed archaeology could be obliterated by erosion.
The Links of Noltland is an area of sand dunes behind Grobust Bay on the north-west coast of Westray. These dunes are subject to severe erosion by the wind, a problem made worse by the activity of rabbits.
First recorded by the 19th century antiquarian George Petrie, the presence of important archaeological remains has been known about for years. But it was only in the 20th century that excavations were carried out, when the National Museum, under the direction of Dr David Clarke, investigated the site between 1978 and 1981.
These excavations focused on one Neolithic building, which comprised two rooms joined by a passage.
The building, which was reminiscent of the houses at Skara Brae, had been built into a pit dug into sand and lined with midden material. It produced a large number of artefacts, including grooved ware pottery, worked bone objects and flint and stone artefacts.
In addition, evidence of extensive middens and cultivated fields was found. But this programme of work was never completed and the findings have yet to be published.
In 1984, the site, and a large surrounding area, was designated as a Property in Care (PIC), managed on behalf of the state by Historic Scotland.
For years, erosion at the links was —and still is — a cause for concern, but in October, 2006, an archaeological assessment was carried out, and as a result a decision was made to excavate a section as a matter of urgency.
Subsequent excavations by EASE archaeology, from Edinburgh, have revealed the remains of six Bronze Age houses and the remains of an earlier Neolithic farmstead — showing that the area was in use for a considerable period of time.
Because of the protection offered by the sand, the site is rich with environmental evidence that is allowing the archaeologists to piece together a detailed picture of life in Stone Age Westray.
Hazel Moore, of EASE Archaeology explained: “The survival of cultivation soils, field boundaries and ‘middens’ in association with the buildings makes it possible to investigate the relationships between the settlements and their landscapes and to discern, and compare, patterns of activity at multiple locations over an extended area.
“The excellent state of preservation of the palaeoenvironmental remains offers the opportunity to gather new data relating to the local environment, economy and cultural life of the settlements.”
We now know that the prehistoric inhabitants farmed barley, kept cattle and sheep and feasted on venison.
However, soil sampling work, carried out by Stirling University, has shown that blowing sand has been a problem since the Neolithic. In an attempt to stabilise their fields, the inhabitants initially used domestic refuse before moving on to the use of animal dung (from http://www.orkneyjar.com/archaeology/noltlandfigure.htm).
Click here to read about another recent Venus find in Germany. https://ethosinterrupted.wordpress.com/2009/05/14/worlds-oldest-venus-statue-found/