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Brough of Deerness Resistivity Scan
The Links of Noltland figurine
(Picture copyright Historic Scotland)

The Orkney Venus

What was hailed as Scotland’s earliest representation of a human was unearthed in Westray in the summer of 2009.

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.

The human figurine — dubbed the “Westray Wifie” by the islanders — was described as a “find of astonishing rarity”.

Measuring just 41mm tall, 31mm wide and 12mm thick, it is, to date,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. The only other confirmed figures of a similar era are from
Windmill Hill, in Wiltshire(that has no head), and from Maiden Castle, in Dorset

The Orkney carving is flat, with a round head on top of a lozenge-shaped body. The head has a finely incised M-shaped line across the front which appears to be a brow line. Two parallel vertical lines from the brow to the lower edge seem to be a nose. There are two widely-spaced round dots for eyes, and a possible mouth.

The head is sharply divided from the shoulder line of the torso by a deep groove. The torso expands from the shoulders to the base. What appear to be breasts, or some form of dress fastening, are indicated by fine incision. The right breast is squarer and more emphasised than the left, which is diamond-shaped. A fine, apparently interrupted, V-shaped incised line runs from the right edge of the right breast to the mid-torso and up to the top of the left breast.

Other scratches on top of the skull could be hair, while a clear lattice pattern on the back which might represent textile or clothing, such as a cloak, or, less likely, body decoration.

The Westray figure — which was 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.

Brough of Deerness Resistivity Scan
The Orkney Venus
(Copyright Historic Scotland)

According to Richard Strachan, project manager and senior archaeologist with the Historic Scotland cultural resources team, the find was “one of those ‘eureka’ moments.”

He added: “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 role of the figurine

Brough of Deerness Resistivity Scan
Archaeologist Jakob Kainz with his "find of a lifetime"
(Picture copyright Historic Scotland)

The discovery of the figure is highly important for archaeology in Scotland and
across the UK.

A great deal of academic discussion is likely to take place as experts consider what it tells us about life and culture 5,000 years ago – a time when representations of the human form were exceptionally rare in Britain and Ireland.

This process has begun with a brief examination by Dr Alison Sheridan, Head of Early Prehistory in the National Museums Scotland archaeology department.

Dr Sheridan suggests the figure was made by shaping a beach pebble, and points out “striking similarities” between its heavy, wavy eyebrows and dot eyes, and a design on three chalk “drums” found in a youth’s grave at Folkton, Yorkshire.

This motif is also present on a lintel in the tomb on the nearby Holm of Papa Westray and on a star-shaped piece of flat stone from Skara Brae. But, she warns, it is much less possible to be sure that these designs are necessarily intended to show human features.

Regarding the Westray carving, Dr Sheridan says it is unclear whether it was intended to be human or divine.

She said: “Was this a sacred object? A toy? A bit of fun? The other finds of the ‘eyebrow and eye’ motif suggest that it had special meaning to Late Neolithic society, so it may be that this is a representation of a goddess or ancestor figure.”

In the immediate future it is likely that experts are likely to generate at least as many questions as answers as they try to get to grips with the significance of the Orkney Venus.

Another examination by Dr Elizabeth Goring, a freelance expert in figurines, has started to look at issues like what the figure was for and how it might have been used.

One option is that it was worn as a pendant, but there is little of the kind of wear that would give substance to this idea. And while it does stay upright, it is not very stable and does not appear to have been specifically designed to stand as a statuette or figurine.

Close examination using microscopes and raking fibre optic lights have shown a faint V-shaped incision linking what appear to be the female figure’s breasts.

Dr Goring suggests that the stone is so soft it could have been shaped with something as soft as a bone tool, and that the markings may have been made quite quickly.

One possibility is that it was made with the specific intention of placing it inside the farmhouse where it was found as an act of closure when its main period of use came to an end.

The report concludes: “If this object was used as a pendant, it was very lightly worn or not worn in life at all. If this object was used as a figurine, there was no evidence that handling was involved in its function. The existence of decoration on both front and back surfaces might suggest it was intended to be viewed in the round. The freshness and smoothness of the surfaces suggest that it could have been made shortly before deposition, or indeed for deposition.”

Excavation Blog
Westray Heritage
Historic Scotland

The Orkney Venus's eyes/brows are identical to the “eyebrow motif” pecked carvings found in the southernmost chambered cairn on the Holm of Papa Westray.
Click here for details.

The eyebrows also bear a marked resemblance to a decorated stone uncovered at the Links of Noltland in 2008. Click here for details.