Orkney Venus gets a partner
19 July 2010
Archaeologists have uncovered a second Neolithic figurine at the Links of Noltland dig on Westray where the Orkney Venus was discovered. The figurine is likely to be more than 4,500 years old.
The figure is the same size and shape as the original sandstone Venus figurine but is made of clay and is missing its head, so stands only 34mm (one and a half inches approx) high. A thumb shaped depression in the top of the body shows where the head was attached with scorch marks from heat used to fix the head to the torso.
Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop said: “It is excellent news that a second figurine has been found at the Links of Noltland dig, giving our team of archaeologists more information in piecing together what we can know about the lives of our ancient ancestors on Westray. Although these figurines are tiny, their significance is huge and its exciting to speculate whether there may be more, waiting to be discovered.
“The Links of Noltland dig has been an incredible success, with this coming hard on the heels of the first figurine being shortlisted for best discovery in the British Archaeology Awards and the resulting economic boost for local businesses as more visitors are attracted to the island. I wish the team all the best for the rest of the dig season and look forward to hearing about more fascinating finds in the weeks to come.”
The new figurine was found by archaeologist Sean Rice working for Historic Scotland’s contractor EASE Archaeology who also uncovered the unusual building with cattle skulls set into its foundations on the dig last year.
The body of the figurine has a similar A-line shape to the stone figurine. The front of the torso features incised decoration, likely to have been made by a sharp bone point.
It shows a rectangular panel, possibly the front of a tunic, sharply divided into a number of triangles. There is a central punched hole rather like a belly button but there are no markings to make this definitively female.
Historic Scotland Head of Cultural Resources, Peter Yeoman, said: “It’s difficult to speculate on the precise function or meaning of these figurines. They could even be children’s toys, although when found in wider European prehistoric contexts are generally recognised as images of deities, with some well-endowed ladies serving as fertility objects.
“This being the case, the figurines start to allow us to consider the spiritual life of the Noltland families more than 4000 years ago, possibly with the earliest evidence we have of worship being channelled through physical representations of spirits or gods.
“Though this new clay figurine is missing a head, the marking on it are incredibly clear, more so that it’s stone companion. A number of small clay balls have been found in the same midden dump, and it’s possible that these could have been meant as heads for one or more such figurines.”
Large stones have been found with scratched and incised geometric decoration. Some of these may have been incorporated into door and passageways. The best example has surfaces completely covered with pecked chevrons and key pattern.
Sheep and cattle bones were used to make a large and varied tool kit, and some fine bone points have been found which would have been used in craft and clothes making. The preservation of all finds, especially the animal bone which tells so much about their economy, food and crafts, is of unusually high quality, one of the features which Links shares with Skara Brae.
Tiny stone beads as well as waste from beads making has also been found. Some of the craft products may have been coloured with natural pigments such as the lumps of red ochre discovered at Links.
Hazel Moore, site director for EASE Archaeology, said: “This discovery is hugely significant and extends our appreciation of the cultural and spiritual life of the Neolithic community at Noltland. This site, although extremely vulnerable to erosion, is repaying the efforts of excavation by providing major new findings on an almost daily basis.”
Sean added: “It is such a great site to be involved with and it is a really fantastic find.”
Orkney Islands Council archaeologist Julie Gibson said: “This is yet another discovery proving that Orkney is the best place in Scotland for encountering archaeology. From tiny objects to well-preserved Neolithic villages, temples, and grand ceremonial sites, this is the place to study the past in three dimensions."
The first Venus figurine is currently on display at the Westray Heritage Centre where it has resulted in an almost tripling in visitor numbers for the months of May and June in comparison to last year. Before the exhibition went back to Westray, it toured about Historic Scotland properties, including Edinburgh Castle, Kilmartin House Museum, Stirling Castle and Urquhart Castle allowing more than 100,000 people to see the Venus.
Richard Welander, Historic Scotland Head of Collections, added: “After the new figurine was discovered, it was taken by our specialist staff to Edinburgh for conservation, the two parts fixed together, and photographed.
“Further specialist study is now required. The figurines, along with all the thousands of artefacts found in the Noltland dig, will be reported to the Treasure Trove Unit in the National Museums of Scotland as the first step in the legal process of determining where the collection will eventually be kept.
“We hope that the second figurine will join the first on display in Orkney in the near future - it will be so exciting for all concerned to have the two reunited.”
You can follow the dig progress through the excavation blog at www.westrayheritage.co.uk
Images of the excavations and the figurine can be downloaded at http://www.historicscotlandimages.gov.uk/vanilla/gl.login_page?un=&secureid=BRADMAN99
using user name NOLTLAND and password 130809 NOLTLAND
Notes for editors
- Historic Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government charged with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment. The agency is fully accountable to Scottish Ministers and through them to the Scottish Parliament.
- Historic Scotland cares for 345 properties throughout Scotland. Links of Noltland is unique as the only property taken into care to protect its important archaeology. For more information on the excavations visit www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/noltland
- Historic Scotland is carrying out a multi-season programme of rescue excavations prompted by severe wind erosion of the dune system which had protected this coastal site. This collapse has been monitored over the last 25 years and in many parts of the site prehistoric archaeology dating back to 3000 BC is now exposed and eroding.
- The project is now recognised as one of the most important prehistoric investigations ever to take place in western Europe, producing results which will inform wider understandings of the lives of our early farming ancestors. The Links of Noltland excavations will be featured in the upcoming BBC series Digging for Britain, presented by Dr Alice Roberts.