The Venus of Orkney, a 4,500-year-old Neolithic sandstone figurine hailed as Scotland’s earliest depiction of a human face, has been a darling of British archaeology since it was excavated last year on the remote island of Westray. Now, the Venus, which earned a nomination at the recent British Archaeology Awards, will have to share the limelight archaeologists at the Links of Noltland site on Westray have uncovered a second remarkable Neolithic figurine, less than 100 feet from where the Venus was discovered.
Like the Venus, the recently excavated figurine is a tiny, delicate pendant-like figurine. Standing less than two inches high it lost its head sometime during the five millennia or so it spent underground the fired-clay figure is delicately carved and covered with geometric incisions probably fashioned with a sharp bone point. Whereas the Venuss carvings display attributes of a woman long hair, two round dots representing breasts the recent figurine bears no anatomical marker to suggest that it is male or female. The excavation team at Historic Scotland, however, believe the intricately carved rectangular panel on its front represents a females tunic.
It is difficult to know what these mysterious figurines meant to the ancient people who carved them. For all we know, said Peter Yeoman, Head of Cultural Resources for Historic Scotland, they could be childrens toys. The Orkney figurines, however, bear striking resemblance to other prehistoric figurines found all over Europe, especially of ample-hipped female figures the Paleolithic Venus of Hohle Fels and the Neolithic cult figures of Catalhoyuk in Turkey come to mind. Such figurines, said Yeoman, are typically recognised as images of deities and fertility objects.
Understood as deities or objects of ritual, the tiny pendants from Orkney hold implications that have archaeologists buzzing. The figurines, said Yeoman, 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.
Until the pendants on Orkney were brought to light, says Yeoman, it appeared that early inhabitants of Scotland had only worshipped deities at major monuments, such as Orkneys recently discovered Neolithic cathedral or the Ring of Brogdar. “[The figurines] suggest that perhaps they did not just represent their belief system on the grand scale, but also they had them in the home,” he said. To say the least, an exciting glimpse into the complexity of this obscure culture.
The archipelago of Orkney continues to be one of Scotlands richest archaeological areas. For local archaeologist Julie Gibson, the excavated pendants are further proof 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 areas most famous site may be the remarkably well-preserved Neolithic village ofSkara Brae, but look for Links of Noltland, which, in addition to the Venus and her clay companion, has yielded complex bone tool kits, stone beads and elaborately decorated stones, to gain prominence in Scottish archaeology.