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Some of the nine supposed human figurines unearthed on Orkney. Source: Orkney.com

Nine Ancient Human Figurines Discovered On Orkney? Or Not?

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Archaeologists excavating a proposed electricity sub-station in Orkney have uncovered what they believe are unusual ancient stone carvings .

It was a team of excavators working in Orkney, the island group off the northeast coast of Scotland, who discovered the 20 inch (50 centimeter) tall sculptures, which resemble humans with shoulders, necks, and what look like heads. Dating back to about 2,000 BC the first carved figure was nicknamed the “Finstown Fella”, after the town near the archaeological site that it was found, between Stromness and Kirkwall.

Since the first was found (nick named the Finstown Fella) eight more stones were recovered from the same site. According to the BBC, Sean Bell, site director for ORCA Archaeology, told BBC Radio Orkney that they had all been worked using a technique known as “ pecking” which requires chipping away the stone with a pointed metal or stone tool, flaking it into shape.

Archaeologists at the site outside Finstown in Orkney where the human figurines were discovered. (Orkney.com)

Archaeologists at the site outside Finstown in Orkney where the human figurines were discovered. ( Orkney.com)

Three Dimensional Ancient Humans?

Mr. Bell also commented on the carvings distinct “round shape”, and he said that on the largest of the carved stones , the upper shape “definitely” looks like a head. He also added that under specific lighting conditions one is led to see other features but, being a solid scientist, he of course added that whether that's intentional or not “we can't say”.

Similar objects have been found in Orkney, at the Links of Noltland on the island of Westray for example, but Mr. Bell said finding nine of the ancient anthropomorphic (human like) stones in one place “is unprecedented”. And these nine examples differ from others in that instead of being rotund and three dimensional like these new examples, the others are “very flat”.

Nine human figurines unearthed on Orkney (Orkney.com)

Nine human figurines unearthed on Orkney ( Orkney.com)

A Significant European Discovery

An article about the stones on Orkney.com interviews Professor Colin Richards from the  University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute  who said this was a “significant discovery” not only in Orkney but also within northwest Europe.

And while Orkney hosts many ancient sites including the vast stone circles of Ring of Brodgar , Stones of Stennes , and the vast Neolithic temple at Ness of Brodgar , seldom do human forms emerge from the island’s ancient soils. This is why Dr. Richards told Orkney.com that it is “very rare” to find representations of people in prehistoric Orkney and when they are discovered they are normally found individually, or in very small groups.

The figurines have been cleaned by experts at the UHI Archaeology Institute. (Orkney.com)

The figurines have been cleaned by experts at the UHI Archaeology Institute. ( Orkney.com)

Undisturbed For 4,000 Years

The big question is whether the objects where deliberately carved into representations of the human form, and if so, it is almost certain that they had ritual functions, and maybe also practical uses . One of the theories that has been proposed is that the flat ones may have been pushed into the ground, and what is interpreted as the neck might have been used as a tether, a “sort of Neolithic tent peg”, said Mr. Bell.

Mr. Bell said the discovery of nine stones in one place, in what he calls a “secure archaeological context”, where it is unpolluted with other archaeological layers, “shines a light on a relatively unknown part of Orcadian pre-history and may help experts to understand more about the objects”. So often at sites where modern agriculture is present archaeology is seriously disrupted, but in the case of the Finstown site it has remained undisturbed for 4,000 years.

Flat and round figurines have been found. (Orkney.com)

Flat and round figurines have been found. ( Orkney.com)

Bonafide Humans, Or Not?

If the group of nine carved stones are indeed identified by the scientists as bonafide “human figurines” then finding a hoard of nine within one ancient structure “is very exciting”. And it is not only exciting in an Orcadian archaeology context, for anthropologists all over the world stay awake at night dreaming of such things emerging from the earth as they complete our picture of how we worshiped “ourselves”.

And when this discovery is interpreted with all the other archaeological findings made at this site in Finstown, Dr. Richards is hopeful they have the potential of adding to archaeologists’ understanding of “Orcadian society in prehistory”.

Top image: Some of the nine supposed human figurines unearthed on Orkney. Source: Orkney.com

By Ashley Cowie

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