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Minister announces Orkney Venus - Discovery of Scotland's earliest carving of a person

21 August 2009

COUNTRY’S FIRST KNOWN FACE COMES TO LIGHT AFTER 5,000 YEARS

When archaeologists carefully brushed away the mud from a small piece of Neolithic carved sandstone they found Scotland’s earliest human face staring back at them.

The human figurine from Historic Scotland’s excavation at the Links of Noltland on the Orkney island of Westray is a find of astonishing rarity.

Measuring just 3.5cm by 3cm it is the only known Neolithic carving of a human form to have been discovered in Scotland – with only two others in the whole of the British mainland.

Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution, Michael Russell, said:

“This is a find of tremendous importance – representations of people from this period are incredibly unusual in Britain.  What we are seeing here is the earliest known human face in Scotland.  It once again emphasises the tremendous importance of Orkney’s archaeology and also of the Links of Noltland site.”

The carving, discovered at the end of last week, is flat with a round head on top of a lozenge-shaped body. Careful examination reveals a face with heavy brows, two dots for eyes and an oblong for a nose.  Other scratches on top of the skull could be hair.

A pair of circles on the chest are being interpreted as representing breasts, and arms have been etched at either side.  A regular pattern of crossed markings on the reverse could suggest the fabric of the woman’s clothing.  It bears some resemblance to the prehistoric carvings from elsewhere in Europe – often referred to as Venus figurines – which have rounded heads, large breasts and exaggerated hips.

Richard Strachan, project manager and senior archaeologist with the Historic Scotland cultural resources team, explained how the discovery was made.  He said: “The find was made by archaeologist, Jakob Kainz who works for specialist contractors EASE Archaeology who are excavating the site on our behalf.  It looked like the stone had been carved.  As some of the mud crumbled off he saw an eye, then another and a nose, then a whole face staring back.”

“It was one of those Eureka moments, 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 fine farmhouse, carefully built to look impressive, and standing within a network of fields.  After the main period of occupation was over it appears to have 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 was ended.

Mr Strachan said: “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 well have been for ceremonial purposes, and the lack of wear and tear suggests it was probably not used as a toy.
  • In a further development the archaeologists have now discovered what appears 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.

Notes for editors
  • Links of Noltland lies behind Grobust Bay on the north coast of Westray.

  • The site was first recorded in the 19th century by antiquarian George Petrie. Archaeological excavations were carried out between 1978 and 1981 led by Dr Clarke from the National Museums of Scotland.

  • The Links of Noltland is among Orkney’s richest and most threatened sites. Severe wind erosion is causing the collapse of the dune system which has protected the archaeology for thousands of years.

  • In recent years emergency excavations have been carried out in parts of the site where the archaeology has been uncovered, then rapidly blown away by the wind.

  • The surface levels now exposed are those of around 3,000BC and HS is keen to learn everything possible about society at that time before the evidence is lost.

  • It is important because extensive evidence has survived about the people who lived there over a long period of time from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.

  • The Links of Noltland settlement shows parallels to Skara Brae, where multi-cellular structures were built by revetting the walls against midden, piled up to provide stability and to keep out the elements.

  • The settlement at Links of Noltland displays a greater depth of time than Skara Brae and excellent preservation, allowing modern archaeological techniques to be used to recover the maximum amount of information from the site.

  • The site was taken into care by Historic Scotland in 1984.

  • The results of the this year’s archaeological work will be fully published, along with the results from all the recent investigations on the site, once post-excavation work is complete.


  • Historic Scotland has 345 historic properties and sites in its care. These include some of the leading tourism attractions in the country, including Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart Castles, Fort George, Linlithgow Palace, the Border Abbeys, and Skara Brae. For further details visit: www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/places

  • Historic Scotland’s Mission is to safeguard Scotland’s historic environment and to promote its understanding and enjoyment.

  • Historic Scotland is delighted to be supporting the 2009 Year of Homecoming with a series of initiatives including family trails, spectacular events and the creation of a Homecoming Pass for heritage attractions in association with other heritage organisations.


For further information


Rebecca Hamilton
Marketing and Media Manager
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8685 / 07788 923871
rebecca.hamilton@scotland.gsi.gov.uk