A 5,000-year-old whalebone figurine, one of the oldest representations of a human form found in Britain, has been rediscovered after going missing for more than 150 years.
The figurine was first discovered in the 1850s at the Skara Brae archaeological site in the Orkney Islands, at the northern tip of Scotland, and was part of the private collection of the local "laird," or landowner, in the 1860s.
But it was thought lost until British archaeologist David Clark rediscovered it in a box in the archives of the Stromness Museum at Orkney in April. Clarke told Live Science that he was reviewing the museum's stores of artifacts from Skara Brae when he found the Neolithic figurine.
"We were going through boxes quite quickly for me to get a sense of what's there, and in the last box of the afternoon I opened it up and there he is, just lying there looking at me," Clarke said. "It was amazing, I was just gobsmacked."
The figurine has been dubbed the "Buddo" of Skara Brae, from the Orkney language word for "friend." It was carved from a single piece of whalebone and measures about 3.7 inches (9.5 centimeters) high and 3 inches (7.5 cm) wide. Holes for eyes and a mouth have been cut in the face, and another hole in the body forms a naval or bellybutton.
The figurine was found in a stone bed compartment in a building known as "House 3" at Skara Brae. The site was uncovered in sand dunes by a major storm in the winter of 1850, and it was first excavated by William Watt, the laird of a nearby manor named Skaill House.
Skara Brae is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and famed for the remarkable preservation of its stone houses, which were built partly underground — possibly to insulate them against the weather, archaeologists have said.
Janette Park, a curator at Stromness Museum, holding the Buddo figurine from Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands.
Clarke said the Buddo figurine was described as an "idol" or a "fetish" by the Scottish antiquarian George Petrie, who reviewed the finds from Skara Brae and published a report on the discoveries in 1867. At the time, it was the oldest human figurine found anywhere in Britain. [Photos: Neolithic Bow and Arrow Revealed in Melting Snow]
But after Petrie's report, the figurine was not seen again, and another review of the Skara Brae finds in the 1920s made no mention of it.
"I don’t think it has seen the light of day for 150 years at least," Clarke said.
Archaeologist Hugo Anderson-Whymark, a trustee of the Stromness Museum, was working with Clarke when the figurine was rediscovered.
Anderson-Whymark told Live Science that museum records showed the figurine was contained in a box of artifacts from Skaill House that had been donated to the museum in the 1930s. But the figurine wasn't recognized and it lay undisturbed for decades, he added.
The Buddo will now go on display as the "jewel" of the Stromness Museum collection, Anderson-Whymark said. He has also created a 3D model of the figurine, which can be viewed online.
While Clarke cautions that the purpose of the figurine is not yet known, he thinks it may have been left on purpose on the floor of the home where it was found when the village was abandoned, perhaps as part of a ritual for departure.
"I think it is a special object that's been placed in a house that’s being abandoned," Clarke said. Similar deposits of objects were previously found in other Neolithic houses at the site, he added.
Archaeologists think Skara Brae was abandoned by its inhabitants around 2500 B.C., possibly because the local climate had become much colder and wetter at that time.
Clarke said the Buddo seemed to be carved from a whale vertebrae. One of the natural canals of the vertebrae runs through the Buddo from ear to ear, which may have been used to hang it up in some way. Another hole in the bottom of the figurine may have been used to attach separate legs, like a doll, he said.
Stone Age art
The Buddo is one of only a few Neolithic representations of a human form ever found in Britain. The discovery of the figurine in the 1860s was the first time any representation of a human had been found in Scotland, Clarke said. [In Photos: Amazing Ruins of the Ancient World]
Since that time, three more Neolithic figurines have been found on the island of Westray in the Orkneys, and four were discovered in southern England.
"They're very rare; there are only eight from Britain, and so it really is very significant," Clarke said. "These are almost the sole images of humans found in Britain until you get to just a few centuries B.C."
This rarity of human figures in Neolithic British and Irish art may signify a religious taboo against artistic representations of humans and animals, said Antonia Thomas, an archaeologist from the University of York, in the United Kingdom.
"What is extraordinary about the Neolithic of Britain and Ireland as a whole is the almost complete lack of any representations of humans or animals, or indeed anything from the living natural world," Thomas told Live Science.
"In continental Europe, you see animals and people represented, but in Britain and Ireland you don't at all — the art work is all geometric and abstract, and you don't really find these figurines, they are exceptionally rare," she said. "So, it has led some people to think there may have been some sort of taboo on representing living forms, rather similar to the Islamic taboo, and that’s quite an interesting line of inquiry."
Thomas said many of the extraordinary finds from Skara Brae — including bone and stone necklaces, pendants, beads, and pins for hair and clothing — gave archaeologists insight into the personal lives of the Neolithic people who lived there.
"We very rarely get a glimpse into the more personal aspects of people in the Neolithic. To have things like this jewelry and now this figurine, you are really starting to get a sense of identity, and connecting more with people," Thomas said.
Several stone and whalebone pots found at Skara Brae contained pigments that were probably used on the walls of houses, to decorate pottery, and possibly to decorate people's bodies, she added.
"We’re really starting to get a sense of how people lived, how they liked to adorn themselves and to think about themselves," Thomas said.