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Sketch of the markings found on a block of stone on Orkney

Neolithic Butterfly-Like Markings Discovered Through A Trick of the Light in Scotland

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Archaeologists excavating an archaeological site in Orkney, Scotland, are stunned by the discovery of some Neolithic butterfly-like markings, which were noticed coincidentally only after they were illuminated by the early morning sun.

Right Time and Right Place

A team of archaeologists working at Ness of Brodgar discovered fortuitously the rare, butterfly-like markings as the sun hit a section of stone at the "right moment, at the right angle" as characteristically BBC News is reporting. Experts suggest that the marks were intentionally created to be delicate and to catch light at certain times during the day. It’s also interesting that the marks are so faint to the point they are not visible if photographs are taken of the stone from a distance. The discovery has forced archaeologists to consider re-examining other stones found at the site, in case other incised marks have been ignored.

Dr. Antonia Thomas of the University of the Highlands and Islands, described the designs as some of the "finest and most beautiful" ever found in Orkney. She also stated that the carefully designed marks may have appeared to be animated as sunlight hit them at particular times of the day. According to Dr. Thomas, another archaeologist named Richard Bradley, had proposed in the past that Orkney's marks may have had pigment rubbed into them, but this color had long since been lost.

Ness of Brodgar dig, structure #14

Ness of Brodgar dig, structure #14 (CC BY SA 4.0)

Finds in Orkney Include an Impressive Roman Coin

The coincidental discovery of the Neolithic butterfly-like markings, however, isn’t the only one taking place in Orkney recently. As BBC News reports, a Roman coin was discovered at the Knowe of Swandro on Rousay, the location of a Neolithic chambered tomb, Iron Age roundhouses and Pictish structures. The coin was discovered at the site of a small roundhouse and is estimated to date from the mid-4th century AD. Dr. Steve Dockerill, co-director of the digging told BBC News, "The bust on the coin is clearly visible although much of the lettering isn't at present clear. The reverse contains a standing figure, possibly representing the emperor with what might be an image of Victory at the side. This type of coin is similar to issues dating to the mid-4th Century AD."

A Roman coin similar to the one described as found at the Knowe of Swandro on Rousay

A Roman coin similar to the one described as found at the Knowe of Swandro on Rousay (CC BY SA 2.0)

And the current investigations keep on giving. Just today a long-time volunteer excavator of the Ness of Brodgar site, Ray, found an exquisitely crafted ‘barbed and tanged’ flint arrowhead dated by experts to the Early Bronze Age. The experts note that the arrow appears to have been used, as its tip is missing.

What You Need to Know About the Ness of Brodgar

The Ness of Brodgar is an archaeological site covering two and a half hectares between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site in Orkney, Scotland. Excavations at the site launched in 2003 and since then the site – other than the recent findings – has provided archaeologists plenty of evidence of decorated stone slabs, a stone wall 6 metres (20 ft) thick with foundations, and a large building described as a temple. The earliest structures are estimated to have been built between 3,300 and 3,200 BC.

Ness of Brodgar dig looking almost due south along the west wall of structure #1.

Ness of Brodgar dig looking almost due south along the west wall of structure #1. (CC BY SA 4.0)

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney was inscribed as a World Heritage site in December 1999. In addition to the Ring of Brodgar, the site includes Maeshowe, Skara Brae, the Stones of Stenness and other nearby sites. It is managed by Historic Scotland, whose "Statement of Significance" for the site mentions:

‘The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation. ... Stenness is a unique and early expression of the ritual customs of the people who buried their dead in tombs like Maes Howe and lived in settlements like Skara Brae.’

The dig is being led by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and supported by Ness of Brodgar Trust.

Top image: Sketch of the markings found on a block of stone on Orkney (Credit: UHI)

By Theodoros Karasavvas



The "butterfly" symbol appears to be the runic figure Dagaz...which also represents metamorphosis and rebirth. Could there be a connection? Could this be the earliest example of futhark runes ever discovered??

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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