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Home/News/Rediscovered: Unique 5000 year old human figurine from Skara Brae

Rediscovered: Unique 5000 year old human figurine from Skara Brae

June 16, 2016

A long lost Neolithic human figurine found at Skara Brae in the 1860s has been rediscovered in the collections of Stromness Museum.  Dr David Clarke identified the figurine among artefacts from Skaill House donated to the museum without provenance* in the 1930s, while undertaking research on Skara Brae funded by Historic Environment Scotland. 

Dr Clarke said:

“Amazingly, we found it in the last box of the day. I’ve always thought this figurine to be lost forever so seeing it staring back at me from its bed of tissue paper was completely unexpected and very exciting.”

Kathleen Ireland, Chair of Stromness Museum:

“Stromness Museum has a superb collection of artefacts from Skara Brae, but this figurine has instantly become the new jewel in our collections.  We are always pleased to welcome researchers and this rediscovery highlights what can found through painstaking research in museum stores.” 

The representation has been carved from a piece of whalebone and measures 9.5cm high by 7.5cm wide.  Eyes and a mouth have been cut in the face and the body has a navel, but is otherwise unadorned.  Holes through the head and body may have been used to suspend the figurine.

The figurine was originally discovered by William G Watt, the local laird, when excavating a stone bed compartment in House 3 of the Neolithic village.    Watt’s find was briefly described as a ‘idol’ or ‘fetish’ in a report of discoveries at Skara Brae by the antiquarian George Petrie in 1867, but was otherwise only known by a sketch in Petrie’s notebooks, now held in the manuscripts of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  

This figurine was the first Neolithic example discovered, but was largely forgotten.  Hugh Morrison, Collections Manager for Historic Environment Scotland said:

“The rediscovery of the figure is significant as it emphasises many of the similarities in the late Neolithic assemblages and structures from Skara Brae and Links of Noltland. It’s also hugely exciting, because it opens the door for re-examining other objects in our collections and may shed light on other figurines found at HES commissioned excavations, such as the Westray Wife discovered at Links of Noltland.”

This understated but hugely important figurine, nicknamed the ‘Skara Brae Buddo’, is now being displayed for the first time in Stromness Museum alongside artefacts from Skara Brae that have not previously been displayed.   


A 3d model of the artefact can be viewed on SketchFab at: https://skfb.ly/NKDt 

* The Orkney Natural History Society Museum would like to stress that this item was not ‘lost’ by or within the Stromness Museum.  It was gifted to the Society in the 1930s in an uncatalogued and unprovenanced (ie, with no papers, drawings or any information) collection of items from Skaill House, Sandwick.   It is due to subsequent research by both our in-house and external experts that we have been able to pinpoint its original find location.