Face to face with the 5,000-year-old 'first Scot'
AT FIRST glance, it appears little more than a tiny fragment of sandstone with a few crude scratches on the surface.
Yet this precious object is one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries made in Scotland – the earliest representation of a human face and body ever found north of the Border.
The face and its lozenge-shaped body – measuring just 3.5cm by 3cm – were carved on the Orkney island of Westray between 4,500 and 5,000 years ago.
The enigmatic figurine had lain undisturbed in the earth at the Links of Noltland – one of Orkney's richest archaeological sites – until just last week.
That was when archaeologists, carefully brushing away the mud from the fragment of sandstone, found Scotland's earliest human face staring back at them.
Yesterday, as the tiny object was displayed in public for the first time, Scotland's culture minister Mike Russell was the first to hail the importance of the remarkable discovery.
He said: "This is a find of tremendous importance – representations of people from this period are incredibly unusual in Britain.
"What we are seeing here is the earliest known human face in Scotland. It once again emphasises the tremendous importance of Orkney's archaeology."
The figurine was unearthed by Jakob Kainz, one of a team of archaeologists working at Historic Scotland's excavations on an ancient farmhouse at the Links of Noltland site – a prehistoric settlement in the dune system flanking Grobust Bay, on the north-west coast of Westray.
Historic Scotland senior archaeologist Richard Strachan said it was a find of "astonishing rarity" – the only known Neolithic carving of a human form to have been discovered in Scotland.
He said: "It was one of those 'eureka' moments. None of the archaeology team have seen anything like it before. It's incredibly exciting.
As some of the mud crumbled off, Jakob saw an eye, then another and a nose, then a whole face staring back."
Careful examination revealed a face with heavy brows, two dots for eyes and an oblong for a nose. A pair of circles on the chest are being interpreted as representing breasts, and arms have been etched at either side. A pattern of crossed markings could suggest the fabric of clothing.
Mr Strachan said: "There is a strong possibility that it has been a votive offering to mark the abandonment of the site. It may have been for ceremonial purposes."
Dr Gordon Noble, a Neolithic expert at Aberdeen University, said: "This is certainly a significant discovery. We have some Neolithic art in Scotland, but it is all abstract art designs."
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