A RARE piece of Neolithic art has been discovered on a beach in Orkney.
The 6,000-year-old relic, thought to be a fragment from a larger piece, was left exposed by storms which swept across the country last week.
Local plumber David Barnes, who found the stone on the beach in Sandwick Bay, South Ronaldsay, said circular markings had shown up in the late-afternoon winter sun, drawing his attention to the piece.
Archeologists last night heralded the discovery as a "once-in- 50-years event". But they warned that a search for other fragments in the area would be hampered by a lack of funds.
"At first, I just thought it was an interesting pattern from the erosion," said Mr Barnes, 44. "Then I knew it was fairly rare. It's a miracle I spotted it."
He said he realised the find could be significant after he read more about the local history of the area.
Archaeologists compared the discovery to the Westray Stone, a Neolithic carved stone discovered in 1981 during routine quarrying work.
It has been in Orkney Mus-eum for more than 25 years but is due to be returned to the area this week and exhibited in the new Westray Heritage Centre in Pierowall.
The Westray Stone was once part of a Neolithic chambered cairn which is thought to have been destroyed in prehistory. A second part, and two smaller carved pieces, were found the following spring in a dig led by Niall Sharples, of the University of Cardiff.
Mrs Julie Gibson, Orkney county archaeologist, said the latest discovery must be the result of erosion from recent storms, as the carved patterns would not have successfully survived so many thousands of years' exposure on soft sandstone.
She said: "This piece is really a once-in-50-years discovery. I was very pleased to find out David really had such a piece of Neolithic art. It's not something that happens every day.
"Natural stones always have patterns in them and quite often people mistake patterns for art. It was surprising David was able to see this on the beach.
"The stone is perhaps from a chambered tomb and could be as old as 5,000 or 6,000 years, and would have possibly been used as a ceremonial, sacred object. This is art made in the same style as art from the Newgrange stone tomb in Ireland or tombs in Brittany. It's part of this Neolithic world linked by the Irish Sea."
The world heritage site at Newgrange in County Meath is estimated to be 600 years older than the Giza pyramids in Egypt.
The concentric circles in the latest find indicated "something special", said Mrs Gibson.
She added that the Sandwick Bay beach now warranted more investigation but she feared that would be constrained by a lack of resources.
She said: "The budget for 'rescue' archaeology has been flat-lined since Margaret Thatcher's time, and it's gone down since then by 200,000 a year, down to 1.5 million in Scotland each year for all rescue archaeology.
"We would like to do more, but the chances are pretty slim."
The stone will now be passed to Orkney Museum and brought to the attention of the Queen and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer to determine if it is a treasure trove or not. Ancient objects without an owner are automatically property of the Crown.
But Mrs Gibson added: "An object like this becomes the property of everyone."
TREASURES FIND THEIR WAY TO THE CROWN
ALL historical finds – whether made by chance, fieldwalking, metal detector or archaeological excavation – are subject to the laws of Treasure Trove in Scotland.
The objects become the property of the Crown and may be claimed as treasure trove, and must be reported so they can be assessed.
The Queen and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer is the Crown Office employee responsible for claiming objects for the Crown under the law of Treasure Trove.
The role of the QLTR also includes deciding on the allocation of objects to museums and the payment of rewards to finders.
The Crown Office, on behalf of the Scottish Government, is given the first chance to claim the object for the overall benefit of the nation. Small museums, including Orkney Museum, can also bid for the found objects to stay in the area where they were found.
Finds not claimed by the Crown are returned to the finder along with an individually numbered certificate stating that the Crown is not exercising its right to claim.