Eyebrows link Westray figurine with burial chamber

The "Eyebrow Motif" carvings from the Holm of Papay South (Historic Scotland)

New pictures suggest that a remote Neolithic burial mound may contain carvings of  human eyes and eyebrows like those recently discovered  on the Orkney Venus —  thought to be Scotland’s oldest human figurine.

The 5,000-year-old 3.5cm high stone carved figurine was found at the Links of Noltland excavations, in Westray. Its most distinctive features include heavy, curved eyebrows with dots for eyes beneath. As reported on Orkneyjar.com at the time, the figurine’s “eyes” bear a marked resemblance to the “eyebrow motif” pecked carvings found in the southernmost chambered cairn on the Holm of Papa Westray.

Archaeologists were keen to compare these with seemingly abstract markings on a lintel stone inside the tomb. Mike Brooks, of the Historic Scotland photographic unit, has now taken high-quality pictures inside the tomb, which do seem to confirm a link.

Richard  Strachan, senior archaeologist with the Historic Scotland cultural resources team, said: “Initial comparisons do show a similarity in use of this eyebrow motif and may point to the possibility that the markings in the cairn are meant to show human eyebrows and eyes, as the style is very similar to the figurine.

“Alternatively, we may be seeing the re-use of a motif familiar  to the carver and applied to different contexts with different meaning.

“This is highly  intriguing and raises yet more questions about Neolithic people’s attitudes to artistic representations of human beings. Images of people are very rare indeed, which some people believe suggests that it was considered taboo.

“But the discovery of the figurine shows there were some exceptions, and the lintel in the tomb may suggest that there were situations where particular features could be shown.”

The Holm of Papa Westray South is sub-rectangular in plan and very large, measuring some 38m long by 20m wide and has 12 side chambers. The lintel with the pecked arcs and cupmarks is in the south-west extension.

The closest parallels to the lintel decoration outwith Orkney may be in the Boyne Valley, in Ireland, and specifically the magnificent tomb of Knowth.

This  heavily decorated tomb, also has spiral decorations which have similarities to the famous Pierowall Stone, which is from Westray.