Orkney Figurine May Show That Ancient Tomb Is Carved WIth Human Eyes
17 September 2009
New pictures suggest that a remote Neolithic island burial mound may contain carvings
of human eyes and eyebrows like those recently discovered on Scotland’s oldest human figurine.
The 5,000-year-old 3.5cm tall stone carved figurine was recently found during the
Historic Scotland funded excavation at the Links of Noltland prehistoric settlement on the Orkney island
of Westray. Its most distinctive features include heavy, curved eyebrows with dots for eyes beneath.
Archaeologists were keen to compare these with seemingly abstract markings on a lintel stone inside
the Holm of Papa Westray tomb, on an island to the north east. Mike Brooks of the Historic Scotland
photographic unit has now taken high-quality pictures inside the tomb which seem to suggest a link.
Richard Strachan, senior archaeologist with the Historic Scotland cultural resources
team, said: “Initial comparisons do show a similarity in use of this eyebrow motif and may point to
the possibility that the markings in the cairn are meant to show human eyebrows and eyes, as the style
is very similar to the figurine. Alternatively, we may be seeing the re-use of a motif familiar
to the carver and applied to different contexts with different meaning.”
“This is highly intriguing and raises yet more questions about Neolithic people’s
attitudes to artistic representations of human beings. Images of people are very rare indeed,
which some people believe suggests that it was considered taboo. But the discovery of the figurine
shows there were some exceptions, and the lintel in the tomb may suggest that there were situations
where particular features could be shown.”
The Holm of Papa Westray is sub-rectangular in plan and very large, measuring some
38m long by 20m wide and has 12 side chambers. The lintel with the pecked arcs and cupmarks is
in the south-west extension.
The closest parallels to the lintel decoration outwith Orkney may be in the Boyne
Valley in Ireland, and specifically the magnificent tomb of Knowth. This heavily decorated tomb,
also has spiral decorations which have similarities to the famous Pierowall Stone which is from Westray.
Despite the fact that the Holm of Papa Westray tomb is an impressive sight, its
remote location, and the fact that it can only be reached by private boat hire, means it is well off
the track for most visitors to Orkney.
Paul Spence, marketing and media assistant 0131
Notes for editors:
● 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.