Archaeologists bizarrely dubbed a tiny Neolithic statue they found, ‘the Orkney Venus,’ although it was very different from its the Greek statue namesake.
This example of Orkney’s unique archaeology raised many questions about Neolithic culture in the islands 5000 years ago.
Orkney Venus Found on Westray, 2009
Archaeologists discovered a tiny 5000-year-old anthropomorphic figure on the Orkney island of Westray in summer 2009. I was on Orkney’s Mainland at the time and have followed the story as it developed and further figures emerged. So far three of the figures have been found.
This is the earliest carving of a human face unearthed in the UK. What does this rare representation of the human form mean for understanding of the people of the time?
The figure is made from local sandstone, and is inscribed with a brow line, indication of the nose, two round dots for eyes and a possible mouth. The eyes were probably impressed by twisting a simple pointed implement such as a bone tool into this relatively soft stone.
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The head is divided from the shoulder line by a groove. The torso expands from the shoulders to the base with no separate legs or arms yet what appear to be breasts are lightly incised into the surface near the top of the torso and markings across the back suggest a garment or cloak.
Pendant Necklace or Sacred Object?
The process of considering what the Orkney Venus suggests about life and culture 3000 years BC began with examination by Dr Alison Sheridan, Head of Early Prehistory in the National Museums Scotland archaeology department. Dr Sheridan said of the carving, reported in Historic Scotland’s ‘First Thoughts From Experts’, that it is unclear whether it was intended to represent the human or the divine. She suggests that it is open to interpretation as anything from a sacred object to a toy.
The groove around the neck could indicate that the figurine was worn as a pendant, but Dr Elizabeth Goring, an expert on early figurines and jewellery artefacts who examined it, does not confirm this because it shows little sign of typical wear that would result from this:
“If this object was used as a pendant, it was very lightly worn or not worn in life at all. If this object was used as a figurine, there was no evidence that handling was involved in its function. The existence of decoration on both front and back surfaces might suggest it was intended to be viewed in the round.” she states, in First Thoughts From Experts.
Further questions emerge, following the discovery of a partial clay version of a second figurine and a larger stone one in recent excavations.
Orkney’s Unique Archaeology Neolithic Legacy
The Links of Noltland, where the figurines were found, is among Orkney’s richest and most threatened sites and has been officially classified a ‘rescue dig’. Severe wind erosion is causing the collapse of the dune system which has protected the archaeology for thousands of years.
Extensive evidence that has survived at the Links of Noltland settlements displays a greater depth of time of use than the similar Skara Brae, on Orkney Mainland, and excellent preservation. Surface levels now exposed are from the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age.
Were the Figurines Lost or Deposited?
The Orkney Venus statuette was found in a structure that was once a 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 been used as a store or holding pen for animals.
As the building decayed it began to fill with rubble and midden. The first discovered figure was among this midden, which experts suggest indicates that it came from a time after the structure’s use as a farmhouse was ended. One possibility is that it was made with the specific intention of placing it inside the farmhouse where it was found, as an act of closure when its main period of use came to an end.
The third and largest figure is similar in shape to the ‘Venus’ one, and was carefully deposited in a separate sealed off area within a house, apparently deliberately. The ‘Grobust’ house, the revetted building where the third and largest figure was found, is also the most complete of its kind anywhere, another example of Orkney’s unique archaeology.
Orkney Venus and the Representations of the Human Form
The discovery of the anthropomorphic figures is highly important for archaeology in Scotland and the UK as representations of the human form are exceptionally rare in Britain and Ireland. No doubt debate will continue to assess the Links of Noltland and these enigmatic relics from a time when Orkney’s Neolithic settlers were evolving into the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age period.