Archaeologists Find 4,000 year old Stone Sculptures in Orkney

A non-political story now, which fascinates me as an archaeologist. Tuesday’s edition of the I carried a story by Chris Green that archaeologists in Orkney had uncovered a number of roughly humanlike sculptures. The article ran

Nine human-like stone sculptures believed to be more than 4,000 years old have been discovered during the construction of a new electricity substation in Orkney.

Archaeologists working at the site near Finstown said that each of the “amazing” carvings, which are 50 cm tall, appeared to have shoulders, neck and what looks like a head.

While similar sculptures have been found in the area before, the discovery of so many in one place is unprecedented and may help shine a light on the prehistory of the islands.

Sean Bell, of Orca Archaeology, which made the discovery, said that whoever made the figures used a technique known as “pecking”, involving chipping away flakes of stone with a pointed tool. 

There have been suggestions that during the Neolithic and Bronze Age Orkney was an important religious centre for the British Isles. The discovery of these sculptures may reinforce this, as they could be representations of the gods or ancestors.

The sculptures themselves are quite rough, almost abstract in their depiction of the human body. Here’s my drawing of what they look like. The photograph in the paper is too small really to be reproduced.

Still, no matter how crude they look to our eyes, they are an important find for researchers of ancient art, and an important landmark in its development in the British Isles.

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9 Responses to “Archaeologists Find 4,000 year old Stone Sculptures in Orkney”

  1. trev Says:

    So would these sculptures be Pictish works or pre-date the Picts? Or perhaps the Picts weren’t in Orkney? I’m just thinking of the tragedy of the silver earings melted down and made into spoons!

    • beastrabban Says:

      Good question. I think it’s still a matter of debate who the Picts were and where they came from. The last thing I read, it was believed they were an Celtic people,but who spoke a different language to the rest of the ancient British and Irish. But this comes from the names preserved on the Pictish King List. Other people have argued from their Ogham inscriptions that they were a pre-Celtic, non-Indo-European people. One Irish scholar believed that they spoke Basque, or a language related to it.

      • trev Says:

        That’s interesting. Genetic links have been found between the Brythonic Celts and the Basques as well as the Iberian peninsula (think it was Prof. Bryan Sykes, Oxford, if I remember correctly). Similar speculation abounds regarding the origins of the Dal Riada, one book I read claimed that they came from ancient Egypt!

      • beastrabban Says:

        I also remember that way back in the 1980s the Observer reported that geneticists had found links between the people of Morocco and the people of north Wales. Cue jokes about how you can’t get a drink in either country.

      • trev Says:

        I’ve heard reference to legends about Black Welsh (or was it Black Irish?) and funnily enough recently watched that documentary about Cheddar Man, whose DNA proved that he had dark skin (pretty much what would be called Black today) but with blue eyes. I forget what colour hair he had, might have been red? I think he is about 8 or 9,000 yrs old.

    • Florence Says:

      Early Orcadians predate the Picts by thousands of years. The early megalithic builders go back 5,000 years at least. There are amazing digs going on there at the Ness of Brodgar, although there are those who think the settlement started far earlier. The picts were a confederation if tribes from the late iron age (200 BCE) through to medieval.

      • trev Says:

        So the early Megalith builders would be the people we refer to as ‘Grooved Ware’ people, i.e. pre-Beaker? If such terms apply in Orkney?

      • Florence Says:

        It looks that way (ish). The earliest traces of humans were in the mesolithic (middle stone age) 9000 years ago. These were pre pottery cultures. The neolithic (new stone age) and early bronze age period that followed (about 3300 bc onwards) had the distinctive pottery called grooved ware and architecture that appears (so far) to have actually travelled south to the areas we associate with Stonehenge. The burials at Stonehenge in the later times (2300 bc) show evidence of the beaker culture. However absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It seems no graves have been found in the Orkneys (or Scotland) from the mesolithic, and very few from the neolithic, bronze and iron ages. The Beaker culture originated on the continent and spread into the British isles from about 2300bc, and seems to follow the grooved ware people by about 1000 years in Scotland and the islands. I’m not an archeologist though just an interested amateur!

  2. oldbirdtravels Says:

    In awe. I really want to get up there considering the places I’ve been to it would be rude not to! I too follow archaeology as a extremely enthusiastic amateur!

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