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Orkney Venus loses out to Anglo-Saxon Hoard
(Story dated: July 19, 2010)

The "largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found" has been named the Best Archaeological Discovery at the 2010 British Archaeological Awards in London.

The Orkney Venus, which was in the running for the award, lost out to the Staffordshire Hoard at the awards ceremony in the British Museum today.

The Staffordshire Hoard contains in excess of 1,500 objects made from various metals - 5kg of gold and 1.3kg of silver. Described as "perhaps the most important collection of Anglo-Saxon objects found in England", the hoard was originally discovered by metal detectorist Terry Herbert in July 2009 and subsequently excavated by Birmingham University Archaeology Unit and Staffordshire County Council.

The Best Archaeological Discovery Award is for an archaeological discovery which "advances understanding and stimulates public imagination of the past".

The judges were looking for evidence of:

  • Contribution to knowledge of the archaeology of the UK.
  • Commitment to recognised professional standards and ethics for recovering and reporting the discovery and subsequent dissemination.
  • Quality of collaboration with others.
  • A project which captures the public's imagination.

The Orkney Venus, and Late Bronze Age Copper and Tin Ingots from Moor Sand, were highly commended.


Second figurine found in Westray
(Story dated: July 19, 2010)

Archaeologists have uncovered a second Neolithic figurine at the Links of Noltland dig on Westray.

Copyright Historic Scotland
Picture: Historic Scotland
Top: The front of the second figurine.
Above: The rear view.
(Pictures: Historic Scotland)

The figure is the same size and shape as the original sandstone "Venus" figurine but is made of clay and is missing its head, so stands only 34mm (one and a half inches approx) high.

A thumb shaped depression in the top of the body shows where the head was attached with scorch marks from heat used to fix the head to the torso.

The new figurine was found by archaeologist Sean Rice, working for Historic Scotland's contractor EASE Archaeology, who also uncovered the unusual building with cattle skulls set into its foundations last year.

The body of the figurine has a similar A-line shape to the stone figurine. The front of the torso features incised decoration, likely to have been made by a sharp bone point.

It shows a rectangular panel, possibly the front of a tunic, sharply divided into a number of triangles. There is a central punched hole rather like a belly button but there are no markings to make this definitively female.

Historic Scotland head of cultural resources, Peter Yeoman, said: "It's difficult to speculate on the precise function or meaning of these figurines. They could even be children's toys, although when found in wider European prehistoric contexts are generally recognised as images of deities, with some well-endowed ladies serving as fertility objects.

"This being the case, the figurines start to allow us to consider the spiritual life of the Noltland families more than 4,000 years ago, possibly with the earliest evidence we have of worship being channelled through physical representations of spirits or gods.

"Though this new clay figurine is missing a head, the markings on it are incredibly clear, more so that it's stone companion. A number of small clay balls have been found in the same midden dump, and it's possible that these could have been meant as heads for one or more such figurines."

Large stones have been found with scratched and incised geometric decoration. Some of these may have been incorporated into door and passageways. The best example has surfaces completely covered with pecked chevrons and key pattern.

Sheep and cattle bones were used to make a large and varied tool kit, and some fine bone points have been found which would have been used in craft and clothes making. The preservation of all finds, especially the animal bone which tells so much about their economy, food and crafts, is of unusually high quality, one of the features which Links shares with Skara Brae.

Tiny stone beads as well as waste from beads making has also been found. Some of the craft products may have been coloured with natural pigments such as the lumps of red ochre discovered at Links.

Hazel Moore, site director for EASE Archaeology, said: "This discovery is hugely significant and extends our appreciation of the cultural and spiritual life of the Neolithic community at Noltland. This site, although extremely vulnerable to erosion, is repaying the efforts of excavation by providing major new findings on an almost daily basis."

Orkney Islands Council archaeologist Julie Gibson said: "This is yet another discovery proving that Orkney is the best place in Scotland for encountering archaeology. From tiny objects to well-preserved Neolithic villages, temples, and grand ceremonial sites, this is the place to study the past in three dimensions."

Richard Welander, Historic Scotland Head of Collections, added: "After the new figurine was discovered, it was taken by our specialist staff to Edinburgh for conservation, the two parts fixed together, and photographed.

"Further specialist study is now required. The figurines, along with all the thousands of artefacts found in the Noltland dig, will be reported to the Treasure Trove Unit in the National Museums of Scotland as the first step in the legal process of determining where the collection will eventually be kept.

"We hope that the second figurine will join the first on display in Orkney in the near future - it will be so exciting for all concerned to have the two reunited."


Excavations resume at Links of Noltland

Excavations have resumed at what Historic Scotland is describing as "the most significant rescue excavation currently under way on the Orkney Islands."

Westray MapArchaeologists are hoping the dig at Westray's Links of Noltland – which last year revealed the Orkney Venus figurine, currently shortlisted for a British Archaeological Award – will uncover more fascinating finds to tell us more about how our ancestors lived on the island of Westray.

Peter Yeoman, head of cultural resources at Historic Scotland, explained: "We plan to have a major season, this year, on the group of Neolithic structures at the south-west of the area in our ownership, which is most at risk from wind erosion.

"This includes the large building which produced the figurine in its backfill last summer, as well as the adjacent house, the wall core of which is packed with cow skulls.

"Our first efforts are directed at the latter due to conservation needs. The sand cover on this area has been reduced to nothing and the archaeology is being actively eroded."

Work on the site began in 2006, but previous digs were carried out in the late 1970s and 80s.

Over decades, the fierce winds have reduced the sand dunes which had protected the archaeology for centuries.

Historic Scotland's senior archaeologist Richard Strachan is managing the project.

Picture Historic Scotland

Archaeologist Sean Rice with the line of ox skulls which discovered during the 2009 excavations at the Links of Noltland.

He said: “The project is reaching a very exciting phase, as we race against the wind to recover the archaeological remains of the extensive settlement extending for around a thousand years from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age.”

“We are concentrating on further defining the enigmatic and unique cattle skull building, uncovered at the end of last season, and in the coming weeks we will be reaching the floor surfaces of the figurine building.

"This represents an exceedingly rare opportunity to excavate a Neolithic building to primary contexts using modern archaeological techniques.On-site specialist analyses are providing very important evidence how the land was managed agriculturally during this millennium.”

The Historic Scotland project continues to be led by EASE Archaeology under the direction of Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson.

Hazel Moore added: “What we have found so far has shed a lot of light on the way that the people living here farmed and dealt with the conditions.

"We have soil and bone specialists working with us and hopefully that will allow us to clarify the diet of the animals kept here and determine how domesticated they were.

“It is clear that the people who farmed here worked hard, but beads and other adornments we have found also show that there was leisure time that they spent making things like coat pins, very similar to the shape of toggles that you still see on duffle coats, which gives us an even better insight into what it would have been like to live on Westray in 2600 BC.”

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