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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.

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Paul Spence, marketing and media assistant             0131 668 8731              

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.

For further information

Rebecca Hamilton
Marketing and Media Manager
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8685 / 07788 923871