Neolithic clay figurine found during Orkney excavation

The Brodgar Boy (Photo: Sigurd Towrie)

Meet the newest member of a small and very special family: the ‘Brodgar Boy’. Archaeologists found this tiny clay figurine while working on a spectacular Neolithic settlement complex between two stone circles on the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney.

Measuring just 30mm long with a clearly-defined head, body, and eyes, the crude model is one of the earliest representations of the human form to be found in Britain. Just two more like it have been found in Orkney before, both on the island of Westray, including the ‘Orkney Venus’ (locally nicknamed the ‘Westray Wifey’). Two others of similar age are known from mainland Britain; one from Maiden Castle in Dorset and the other from Windmill Hill in Wiltshire.

Unlike the Orkney Venus, which was carefully carved from a sandstone pebble and etched with clear female characteristics, the Brodgar Boy does not seem to have been created from scratch. The lower edge is broken, suggesting it might have originally been part of a larger clay object and was turned into a figurine after being damaged.

While archaeologists have speculated that the Orkney Venus may have served a ritual purpose, representing a goddess or ancestor, Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), who is directing excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, suggested that this latest find might represent something more personal — perhaps a casual piece of art, or even a lost toy.

He said: ‘It’s not a beautifully carved piece of craftsmanship. It’s probably been part of another object at one time and when it broke, the fragment was perhaps then reworked into this little figurine.

‘It doesn’t appear to have been a closing deposit for the building in which it was found or what could be termed a votive offering, or anything along these lines.’

He added: ‘But it’s still a beautiful little find; an interesting little curio that, in amongst all the massive structures and monumental architecture on the Ness, gives us a more personal glimpse of the people who once frequented this area.’

The Brodgar Boy was discovered last Thursday — during the 2011 digging season of a Neolithic settlement, possibly occupied for 1500 years from as early as 3500 BC, which lies within a large walled enclosure covering an area of some two hectares between the stone circles of Brodgar and Stenness.

This land had long been assumed to be reserved for ritual and funerary monuments, but in 2002 everything changed when a geophysical survey found evidence of a huge domestic complex. Small-scale investigations began the following year while open site excavations have been under way since 2007 (see  Current Archaeology  241, or read an extract here).

A bird’s-eye view of the structure 10 trench from the 2009 excavation, as featured in CA241

Over time the full significance of the site has emerged, with a number of intriguing finds including, according to ORCA, ‘one of the largest, if not the largest, stone-built Neolithic non-funerary structures in Britain’. This enormous building measures 25m long by 20m wide, with 5m-thick outer walls still standing to a height of about 0.9m. Nick Card said it probably had a religious function, likening it to the area’s ‘cathedral’.

The site has also provided what is thought to be the first evidence in Britain that Neolithic people decorated their buildings with colourful paint: in 2010 archaeologists found one red, orange and yellow stone and another with a red chevron pattern. Painted cave decorations are known from Neolithic sites in Mediterranean Europe but a similar use of colour had not previously been seen in Britain before the Bronze Age.

Last year the Ness of Brodgar excavations were named ‘Research Project of the Year’ in the  Current Archaeology  annual awards.

– By Carly Hilts