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Mysterious stone figures found on Orkney

a carved stone figurine vaguely resembling a figure

One of the figurines discovered at Finstown, Orkney after cleaning. Courtesy ORCA Archaeology

Orkney archaeologists unearth a fascinating series of anthropomorphic stones…

Each year the ongoing archaeological excavations on Orkney bring more insight into the multi-layered history of an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland that boasts a story of human occupation stretching back over 8,000 years to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods.

The latest find to emerge from the depths of Orkney’s rich pre-history is a series of remarkable half-metre tall stone-carved objects found hidden inside a former dwelling on the site of a proposed electrical substation in Finstown.

After digging through sixty centimetres of an old domestic dump or ‘midden’, archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) found a series of carved stones, some of which look remarkably like stylised representations of the human form.

Others look more like stones set upright into the floor of a Bronze Age building that was excavated by at the famous Links of Noltland site in Westray, which dates from about 3300 BC to 800 BC. These may have been used to tie mooring ropes onto, to help hold the roof on.

a photo of two small stone figures photographed in a field

Little and Large: Two of the figurines before cleaning. Courtesy ORCA Archaeology. Orkney.

a photo of a carved stone figure lying on the ground next to some other stones

One of the figurines in situ next to the hearth. Finstown. Courtesy ORCA Archaeology. Orkney.

The carved stones were found scattered around a hearth within the remains of an enigmatic structure that contained three cists, two hearths and a partial ring of holes packed with broken off upstanding stones.

Three of the roughly carved figures were also important enough to the people who used the building to be incorporated within the structure of one of the hearths and in the foundations of one of the standing stones. However the purpose of the building and how it was used by the inhabitants of this site four thousand years ago is still an enigma.

This find adds to a tradition of rare pre-historic figurative art on Orkney, which includes the 5,000-year-old Neolithic female figurine known variously as the “Westray Wifie” or the “Orkney Venus”, found at the Links of Noltland in 2009 and now displayed at Westray Heritage Centre, together with other finds from the archipelago.

Firmly dating the necked stones found at Finstown will however require further work, since they have also been found on Iron Age sites in Orkney. On initial evidence archaeologists think they could date to around the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, roughly 2000BC.

Identifying the purpose of the stones, and whether they are indeed figurines, will also require further work, with a close study for abrasion, wear and any other marks on the anthropomorphic objects, but archaeologists are already hailing them as a very important find.

a photo of a stone in a human shape in a field

Finstown Figurine following removal from ground, but prior to cleaning. Courtesy ORCA Archaeology.

a carved stone in a vague anthropomorphic shape

One of the figurines after cleaning. Courtesy ORCA Archaeology

two small stone figures photographed in a field

Detail of the ‘heads’ of two figurines unearthed at Finstown Orkney. Courtesy ORCA Archaeology.

“This is a significant discovery in Orkney and probably within North West Europe,” says Professor Colin Richards from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. “It is very rare to find representations of people in prehistoric Orkney and when found, they are usually individual or in very small groups.

“If they are figurines, to find nine figures within one structure is very exciting and together with the archaeology found at this site has the potential to add to our understanding of Orcadian society in prehistory.”

The ORCA Archaeology team were also intrigued to uncover direct signs of people working the land some four thousand years ago at the site. In one of the trenches, long marks were found cut into the clay subsoil, which were made by ards (stone plough shares) providing valuable evidence for prehistoric farming in Orkney. These forms of prehistoric ploughs were constructed of wood with a stone shaped into a rough point placed into the wood to plough the soil ready for planting. The lines cross each other at various angles further suggesting that the ground was cultivated by intensively criss-crossing with the ard point by these early Orkney farmers.

Taken together with the remnants of the Early Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement structures the marks offer archaeologists a tantalising insight into the lives of Orkney residents who were living, farming and burying their dead across this windswept hillside.

The exploratory trenches at Finstown have now been recorded and covered over, while the significant artefacts are now cleaned and stored for future study.

a series of excavated cross hatched marks in the ground

Ard point marks, Finstown, Orkney. Courtesy ORCA Archaeology.

a photo of a small carved figure with a pattern on its body

The Notland Carving commonly known as ‘the Westwray Wifie’ can be seen at Westwray Heritage Centre. Copyright Historic Scotland

Find out more about the work of ORCA archaeologists at www.uhi.ac.uk/en/archaeology-institute/

Follow the history of Orkney on this excellent website www.orkneyjar.com/

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Westray Heritage Centre

Westray, Orkney Islands

We are situated in the centre of Pierowall village in Westray next door to the Pierowall Hotel. Inside we have an annual display plus permanent exhibition panels on walls, and GEO with model seabirds and sounds. There are also interactive displays which will attract youngsters, many records of the island’s…

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