Q&A with David Clarke

Uncovering a long lost Neolithic figurine at Stromness Museum
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
Stromness Museum recently announced that a Neolithic human figurine carved from whalebone had been rediscovered in its stored collections. The 5,000-year-old artefact, nicknamed Buddo, was unearthed in the 1860s at Skara Brae, a prehistoric village on Mainland, the largest island in Scotland’s Orkney archipelago.

Although a sketch by the 19th-century antiquarian George Petrie spoke of its existence, the figurine was donated to the museum in the 1930s without being catalogued or provenanced and had remained in storage ever since.

Historian David Clarke, who is conducting research on Skara Brae funded by Historic Environment Scotland, spoke to Museums Journal about the moment he came across the figurine.

How did the discovery of the figurine come about? How did it feel when you first spotted it?

I was in Orkney mainly to look at material from Skara Brae that is on display at the visitor centre there. But a spare afternoon gave me a chance to look at some of the boxes of material from Skara Brae held by Stromness Museum.

The figurine was in the last box that we intended to look through. Because I have known about George Petrie’s mid 19th-century drawing for a long time now, I knew what it was as soon as I saw it. Seeing something as exceptional as this figurine after thinking for years it was lost was a very special moment.

What is the significance of the figurine and how will it inform future research? What will happen to it now?

Figurines from early farming communities in Britain are extremely rare. Until we have significantly more of them, it’s rather difficult to predict its impact on future research. This figurine has now been given a prominent place in the displays at Stromness Museum.

Are funding cuts having an impact on collections research? What are the risks to collections if researchers are unable to access them?

Funding cuts are having a serious impact on collections research in two main ways. Firstly, reductions in museum staff means that there are less people able to make collections available and doing so is not always seen as an appropriate priority.

And secondly, the reduction in funds available to enable museum visits by researchers means that the study of collections is diminishing every year. The implications of this, together with a general unwillingness on the part of the universities to teach serious material culture study, are that we will face a diminishing number of specialists capable of interpreting the collections effectively.

The Museums Association is running a one-day seminar on collections care on 6 July at the Royal College of Surgeons in London

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