|22 August 2009
Earliest image of a human discovered in Scotland
A 5,000-year-old carving discovered in the Orkney Islands is being hailed as the oldest face in Scotland by archaeologists. At first glance, it appears little more than a tiny fragment of sandstone with a few crude scratches on the surface. Yet this precious object is the earliest carving of the human form to be found in Scotland - there are only two others in the whole of the British mainland.
The face and its lozenge-shaped body - measuring just 3.5cm by 3cm - were carved on the Orkney island of Westray between 4,500 and 5,000 years ago. The enigmatic figurine had lain undisturbed in the earth at the Links of Noltland - one of Orkney's richest archaeological sites - until just last week. That was when archaeologists, carefully brushing away the mud from the fragment of sandstone, found Scotland's earliest human face staring back at them.
The figurine was unearthed by Jakob Kainz, one of a team of archaeologists working at Historic Scotland's excavations on an ancient farmhouse at the Links of Noltland site - a prehistoric settlement in the dune system flanking Grobust Bay, on the north-west coast of Westray. Historic Scotland senior archaeologist Richard Strachan said it was a find of 'astonishing rarity' - the only known Neolithic carving of a human form to have been discovered in Scotland. He said: "As some of the mud crumbled off, Jakob saw an eye, then another and a nose, then a whole face staring back." Careful examination revealed a face with heavy brows, two dots for eyes and an oblong for a nose. A pair of circles on the chest are being interpreted as representing breasts, and arms have been etched at either side. A pattern of crossed markings could suggest the fabric of clothing.
What the carving was for is uncertain, but archaeologists believe it may well have been used for ceremonial purposes. The lack of wear and tear suggests it was probably not used as a toy. "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," added Strachan. "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."
The building being excavated was once a farmhouse but as it decayed it began to fill with rubble and the figurine was found among it, suggesting that it came from a time after the structure's use as a farmhouse. Dr Gordon Noble, a Neolithic expert at Aberdeen University, said: "This is certainly a significant discovery. We have some Neolithic art in Scotland, but it is all abstract art designs."
The find preceded the discovery of what archaeologists believe to be the ritually deposited skulls of 10 cattle built into the wall of a Neolithic structure that may have been attached to the main farmhouse. Some of the skulls are interlocking and all appear to be positioned upside down, with horns sticking into the ground.
Sources: Culture24 (20 August 2009), The Scotsman, BBC News, View London, The Press and Journal (21 August 2009)
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