STOP PRESS: Hours before this paper was to be placed online as
second incised figure was found on a second fragment of the phalange.
Click here for pictures.
Bu Sands is an area of fixed sand dunes in a bay lying on the east
coast of Burray (see figure 1). The name Bu typically indicates
a site of importance and the B-listed Bu Farm has been an important
site historically, an earlier building being home to a branch of
the Stewart family. The North Links are the most important source
of high quality building sand in Orkney and are used recreationally
as a motorcross track but have been proposed as an area of local
nature conservation importance for ornithology in the Orkney Islands
Council Development Plan (2003). This area was not examined in the
archaeological survey of Orkney's coasts by EASE (Moore and Wilson
|Figure 1. Burray, Orkney: site
Sand extraction works and blow-out subsequent to motorcross activity
led to the exposure of archaeological remains at Bu Sands between
1987 and 1990 (Smith et al 1988). Surface finds were collected from
the area on a number of occasions, with four site locations noted
by Beverley Ballin Smith around OS grid reference ND 476975. These
finds include iron age pottery, stone tools and iron-smelting debris,
but are predominantly animal bones. Many of these finds have been
deposited with the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall. The most notable items
published hitherto are four decorated antler mounts and a stone
"egg amulet" (Hunter 1993). In 1993, reports of human
remains becoming exposed led to Daphne Home Lorimer making a visit
to the site together with Bill Cormack and Margaret Watters. The
presence of at least four human burials was confirmed and a small
number of finds collected. Further midden deposits were reported
as exposed in July 1996. No controlled excavation of the site has
been undertaken however and there have been no additional reports
of finds, nor any further evidence of archaeological material remaining
|Figure 4. Approximate finds site locations
and the possible archaeological remains noted from aerial photographs.
Click the image for an enlargement
Examination of aerial photographs taken by the RAF during the 1946
and in the 1950s, which show the find area and are in the possession
of Orkney Archaeological Trust, has indicated the existence of a
number of circular features - earthworks and parchmarks - at that
time. These features were graphically located (Kilford 1975) on
the Ordnance Survey grid, based on points which could be identified
both on the photographs and on the 1:2500 Ordnance Survey map of
the region. This method is liable to cumulative errors and no attempt
was made to interpret feature height or relief. It was felt that
this method was suitable for the scale of the plans and uncertain
location of the finds. No record was found of any military installations
in the area nor of any other previously known archaeological structures
that would explain the observed features. The results of this process
were compared with the locational notes made by Smith: the results
are shown as figure 4 . The similarity in distribution of the two
sets is striking and demonstrates the enormous potential value of
this photographic archive to our future knowledge of the archaeology
An assessment of the recovered finds assemblage is currently being
undertaken, funded through the Community Environmental Renewal Scheme,
with the intention of creating a teaching and handling collection
for the Orkney Museum. During the initial cataloguing phase of the
project, all the finds were recorded: the bones were examined to
identify species and body parts represented, ascertain condition
and to find any evidence of butchery marks and bone-working. One
bone fragment was found to have a distinctive design incised into
its surface (figure 2).
|Figure 2. The bone fragment from Bu Sands.
Photograph by Colin Rendall. Click for enlargement.
The carved bone is the proximal phalanx of an ox, of which only
one side remains, due to breakage. The piece is 53mm in height and
varies between 19mm and 30mm across. The surface condition of the
bone is generally good but there is a gouge through the front of
the carving. Apart from the surface carving, there is no evidence
of the bone having received any working e.g. to smooth the outline
or produce a more level base.
The main part of the design (figure 3), on what was the side of
the bone, is a standing human figure 22mm in height and cut into
the bone so that the figure will appear upright when the bone is
standing on its end. The figure wears a thigh-length tunic showing
details such as cloth-folds around the arm and decoration around
the hem. Behind the figure appears a design of circular motifs retained
by a straight line. 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.
|Figure 3. The figure incised into a cattle
phalanx, from Bu Sands.
Immediately behind the main figure, there appears another series
of marks not obviously related to any other part of the carving,
which may be a previous attempt to produce a human figure on this
bone. These marks are generally faint and appear as a circular "head"
immediately behind the main figure's ponytail. The rear part of
the carving seems merely be a pattern to fill the surface. Many
Pictish patterns are based on repeated circles or spirals (Allen
and Anderson 1903) but there is no obvious indication of any attempt
to develop a finer or more elaborate design from the marks on the
Three other cattle phalanges are known from Orkney which have patterns
incised into their surfaces: two from the Broch of Burrian in North
Ronaldsay (Traill 1890, MacGregor 1975) and one from the Pool excavations,
Sanday (Hunter et al forthcoming). Of these three, two bear the
well-known Pictish crescent and V-rod design, one with the "mirror
case" on the reverse; the other has an unclear design. All
these seem carved with the design to be upright with the bone on
its proximal epiphysis. A number of similar finds have been reported
from terp mounds in the Netherlands: Munro (1889) notes "bones
of the foot of an ox are covered with concentric circles, apparently
for ornamentation" and this suggests a similarity with the
rear part of the carving from Bu. Similar finds are also recorded
by Roes (1963) while Addyman and Hill (1969) describe a phalanx
"trial piece" from Southampton inscribed with Frisian
It seems that these cattle phalanges did not require significant
further shaping to achieve their function. Bone trial pieces as
known elsewhere seem typically to be produced from longbones and
to bear several distinct pieces of decoration (MacGregor 1974b).
Although stone objects bearing single motifs have been interpreted
as such items, such an interpretation for the phalanges seems unlikely
when more suitable bone surfaces for carving were available. There
must therefore be an aspect of the cattle phalanx that makes it
particularly well suited to some other function.
The shape of cattle phalanges permits them to stand upright on
the proximal epiphysis and the carvings are clearly intended to
be at this orientation. This may have facilitated use as game pieces
or even as decorative figurines. The profile of proximal epiphysis
varies between individual specimens and those of the forelimb generally
provide a reasonably level surface: rear limb phalanges have a greater
natural tendency to lean and would be less stable unless smoothed.
One further relevant example from Pool is of a cattle phalanx that
had been smoothed across the proximal epiphysis and whittled around
the margins (Hunter et al forthcoming). This formed a shape similar
to that of bone and antler pieces from the Broch of Burrian (MacGregor
1974a) and a stone piece found at the early Christian period site
of Kiondroghad on the Isle of Man (Gelling 1969), all interpreted
as gaming pieces. The degree of finishing that such an article would
require may depend on the nature of the game to be played: a casually
used skittles set might require less elegance in form than pieces
for a boardgame for example. MacGregor (1974b) notes the collection
and use of cattle phalanges in 20th century Friesland as skittle-like
targets in a throwing game.
Still other examples of the working of this bone are a number which
have a small circular hole drilled through the centre of the proximal
epiphysis - including one from Bu Sands - either for use of the
phalanx as a handle or to take a peg, permitting the securing of
the bone in place on another object. 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.
I would like to thank Nick Card of Orkney Archaeological Trust
for his help and especially for access to the aerial photographs
and to the Sites and Monuments Records; Anne Brundle who has given
help and advice throughout the project; and Stephanie Stanger and
the children of Burray Primary School for their thoughts about the
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