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  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.

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.

See Also

External Links

Ring of Brodgar Excavation 2008

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