A TINY carved figurine bearing Scotland's oldest face was yesterday hailed as one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Britain in recent years.
• Afra Mancini, seven, takes a close look at the Orkney Venus at Edinburgh Castle, where it begins its Scottish tour. Picture: Rob McDougall
The Orkney Venus has been named in a shortlist of three for the Best Archaeological Discovery category in the 2010 biannual British Archaeological Awards.
The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony at the British Museum on 19 July.
The 5,000-year-old Orkney Venus attracted worldwide interest when it was discovered last summer by archaeologists working on the Historic Scotland excavation at the Links of Noltland, on Westray. The 4cm figure in sandstone is the only known Neolithic carving of a human form to have been found in Scotland.
The enigmatic figure – known locally as the Westray Wife – had lain undisturbed in the earth until the archaeologists carefully brushed away the mud to reveal the human face with heavy brows, two dots for eyes and an oblong for a nose, staring back at them.
A pair of circles on the chest have been interpreted as representing breasts, and arms have been etched at either side. A pattern of crosses suggests the fabric of clothing.
Its name comes from its resemblance to similar figurines classed as Venuses from elsewhere in Europe and beyond.
The figure is currently on public display for the first time on the island where it was found, at the Westray Heritage Centre.
It has already been viewed by more than 100,000 people as part of a special Historic Scotland touring exhibition taking in venues including Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, Kilmartin House in Argyll and Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness.
It will finish in October at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.
Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland's head of cultural resources, said: "The Orkney Venus is the first replica of the human form to be found in Scotland and is possibly the best and earliest to be found in the UK.
"Her discovery confirms the importance of the Links of Noltland as one of the most fascinating prehistoric sites in Scotland. It is an incredibly rich settlement site which is advancing our understanding of our Neolithic to the Bronze Age ancestors.
"The site is in our care, but is severely threatened by wind erosion, which has removed the sand that protected the well-preserved houses, middens and fields for 4,000 years.
"Historic Scotland is now leading a race against the wind with further excavations being carried out for us this summer."
Historic Scotland senior archaeologist Richard Strachan said:
"None of the archaeology team have seen anything like it before. It's incredibly exciting. There is a strong possibility that it has been a votive offering to mark the abandonment of the site."