Archaeologists discover Scotland's oldest carving of a person

By Culture24 Staff | 20 August 2009
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photo of a man holding a small stone carving in the shape of a figure

(above) Archaeologist Jakob Kainz with Scotland's earliest human face. © Historic Scotland.

Archaeologists in Scotland have discovered the only known carving of a Neolithic human form during an excavation at the Links of Noltland on Orkney.

When archaeologists on the island of Westray carefully brushed away the mud from the small piece of Neolithic carved sandstone, measuring just 3.5cm by 3cm, they found Scotland's earliest human face staring back at them.

Dating from around 3,000 BC, the discovery is being hailed as an astonishing rarity and is earliest carving of the human form to be found in Scotland – there are only two others in the whole of the British mainland.

"It was one of those Eureka moments, none of the archaeology team have seen anything like it before, it's incredibly exciting," said Historic Scotland Senior Archaeologist Richard Strachan. "The discovery of a Neolithic carving of a human was quite a moment for everyone to share in."

The find, which was made by archaeologist Jakob Kainz, initially looked like a carved stone but as the mud crumbled off he saw an eye, a nose, then a whole face staring back at him.

photo of a small stone carving in the shape of a figure

The stone figure has a series of intricate carvings. © Historic Scotland

The Links of Noltland is one of Scotland's most important archaeological sites and archaeologists are currently engaged in intensive surveys to find out more about the Neolithic inhabitants of the area, before it succumbs to wind and wave erosion. This latest discovery was made among the remains of an old stone farm building that would have once been an impressive farmhouse.

What the carving was for is uncertain, but archaeologists believe it may well have been used for ceremonial purposes. The lack of wear and tear suggests it was probably not used as a toy.

"With some of the objects found you might think they had been left behind, perhaps on a shelf, and just fell down and became buried," added Strachan. "But with something this fine and unusual it begs the question of whether it may have been deposited there intentionally, perhaps as some act of closure after the building's main use was over."

The find preceded the discovery of what archaeologists believe to be the ritually deposited skulls of 10 cattle built into the wall of a Neolithic structure that may have been attached to the main farmhouse. Some of the skulls are interlocking and all appear to be positioned upside down, with horns sticking into the ground.

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