Two new Pictish carvings found in Burray bone hoard

An enlarged view of the carving.

A chance discovery during a routine bone sorting at the Orkney Museum has revealed not one but two suspected Pictish carvings.

Now, just a few weeks after the discovery of the second, they are going on display in an Orkney Heritage exhibition at the Fossil and Vintage Centre in Burray.

While working through a selection of bones recovered from the Bu Sands in Burray in the 1990s, bone specialist Dave Lawrence noticed that one in particular seemed to have a distinctive design cut into its surface.

Then, three weeks ago, a second carving of a man’s head was discovered on a separate fragment of the same bone.

The Community Environmental Renewal Scheme provided a grant last winter so the finds could be sorted and made into a handling collection for use in the museum and schools.

It was during this sorting that he discovered the carvings.

The carved bone is the ‘proximal phalanx’ of an ox, just over 5cm high.

The main part of the design is a standing human figure, 2.2 cm tall and appears to be cut into the bone so the figure will appear upright when the bone is placed on its end.

The man is clad in a thigh-length tunic and stands before a design of circular motifs.

Picture Orkney Library Picture Archive

The carved ox bone.

Dave Lawrence explains: “The carving was clearly executed with a sharp bladed cutting tool such as a knife.

“Close examination shows the cuts to have been predominantly straight lines, with multiple cuts used to give the appearance of curves. Curved incisions do appear on the piece but are relatively infrequent.”

“There is a hexagonal motif with a central rectangle prominent beneath the figure’s elbow. It is likely that a circular object is intended here, which may represent a shield with a square central boss slung from the figure’s shoulder or on his elbow. This interpretation was also suggested, without prompting, by the children of the P1, 2 and 3 class at Burray Primary School during a recent visit!

“The figure then represents a warrior and the line in front of the chest may be the edge of a weapon, probably a spear, axe or sword, especially if a notch apparent above the damaged area is a carved point.

“The robust nature of the upper face may be intended to convey the nasal of a helmet represented by the large “hat”.

The hexagonal object may alternatively represent a purse or belt-pouch. Together with the decoration around the tunic hem, either interpretation suggests that the figure portrayed is a person of high status.”

The shape of the cattle bones allows them to stand upright and this could imply that they were used as game pieces or even decorative figurines.

But unfortunately, because other bones extracted from the area have been lost, there is little that can shed light on the bones or any purpose of the carvings.

“Loss of a large part of the Bu bone prevents further comment on its specific suitability for any particular function but an interpretation of the object as a gaming piece seems most likely to be correct,” Mr Lawrence said.

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