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Pictish Symbol Stone (Pictish)

Site Name Ness

Classification Pictish Symbol Stone (Pictish)

Canmore ID 3002

Site Number HY50NW 41

NGR HY 5445 0932

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Orkney Islands
  • Parish St Andrews And Deerness
  • Former Region Orkney Islands Area
  • Former District Orkney
  • Former County Orkney

Early Medieval Carved Stones Project

Ness, Tankerness, Orkney, Pictish symbol stone fragment

Measurements: H 0.59m, W 0.33m

Stone type: sandstone

Place of discovery: HY 5445 0932

Present location: The Orkney Museum, Kirkwall (OM 1986).

Evidence for discovery: found in 1986 in the garden at Ness Farm.

Present condition: all the edges of this fragment are broken and the head of the S-dragon is damaged.


This fragment bears a roll moulding along one short edge which may be the underside of a cross-arm, with an S-dragon carved in false relief in such a way that its head is tucked tightly against the possible arm. If this is the case, not only is the S-dragon in the same position, lower right, as on the cross-slab from Appiehouse, Sanday, but this was a very large cross-slab, perhaps some 0.90m in total width. But it is also possible that this is part of a shrine panel with a roll moulding along the top. The body of the S-dragon has a plain band along its underside, a broad corrugated back and a tightly curled spiral tail.

Date: eighth or ninth century.

References: Scott & Ritchie 2014, no 13; Graham-Campbell & Henderson 2018, 196, 201.

Desk-based information compiled by A Ritchie 2019

Archaeology Notes

HY50NW 41 5445 0932

In April 1986 Mr D Harcus of Ness ploughed up a sculptured fragment in the potato garden immediately S of the old house (now a garage and workshop). This spot within the old tumail is stony, and the previous family at Ness, before 1930, are said to have discovered two human skulls here. The fragment, with maximum dimensions on the sculptured face of 589mm by 308mm, is a fine-grained grey-buff sandstone. The reverse of the slab is rough, indicating that it has been split longitudinally, thus losing its original reverse face, subsequent to the original carving, but before a later (probably post-medieval) re-use; this involved cutting a fresh edge and 30mm back from it, the latter also impinging on the Pictish figure. The figure is the greater part (the head being damaged) of the animal referred to by Thomas as the S-dragon Thomas (1961, where parallels are conveniently illustrated). It is carved as a round-sectioned groove, 3mm-4mm deep, executed by pecking; thus, although this is technically an incised figure (and there is no lowering of the surrrounding surface), the effect is of releif carving and this is a rare Orcadian example of Class II work. The quality is good and the figure large and bold, having a maximum length, measured from the re-cut edge, of 377mm.

RCAHMS 1987, visited May 1986

Dug up in a garden at Tankerness about 1986, this fragment of yellow sandstone bears the figure of a hippocamp or seahorse. Now in Tankerness House Museum.



Orkney Smr Note (May 1986)

Fragment of a Pictish symbol stone of grey-buff sandstone

was ploughed up by Mr Harcus in cultivating the potato patch in

the tumail immediately S of his garage/smithy (which formerly was

the dwelling-house, the immediate predecessor of the present one)

- April 1986. The spot was slightly E of the middle of the

potato garden, which Harcus says is a stony patch where the

plough won't go as deep as elsewhere. His grandfather came to

Ness about 1930 and the people previously in the farm are said to

have dug up two human skulls in this garden, which is thought to

be an old burial ground. This is adjoined on the N side by the

garage/smithy, which was widened by the present Mr Harcus by

demolishing the S side-wall and rebuilding it on a further S

alignment. In digging the foundation for this Mr Harcus found a

great depth of rich shell midden material, which Harcus failed to

bottom, and had to construct the wall on a concrete raft.

The stone is a slab of grey-buff sandstone. The face

bearing the sculpture is dressed, with maximum dimensions of

589mm x 308mm. the other side is roughly flaked, and evidently

the slab has been split longitudinally, thus losing its original

other face, at some time between the Pictish work and its

re-cutting for a secondary use. This re-cutting has involved the

making of a new straight edge, along which two round-sectioned

grooves, 3-4mm deep, have been cut. Both angles along this edge

have been rounded, and a third, similar groove has been cut along

the face, 30mm inwards from the recut edge. This groove impinges

upon the Pictish figure's head end. Within some 200mm of this

groove, the surface of the stone has been smoothly polished,

whereas this surface at the far end of the fragment, and around

the scrolled tail of the figure, has a lightly pecked finish.

The effect of this secondary treatment has been to reduce the

depth and clarity of the Pictish cutting at the head of the end

figure. The re-cut edge has a thickness of 46-50mm, while at the

far end, where the other face is the rough flaked surface, the

thickness is 83mm.

The Pictish figure extends a maximum of 377mm from the recut

edge. The carving takes the form of a round-sectioned groove

executed by pecking. The groove lacks clearly-defined edges, the

rounding being continued over the intervening ridges which form

the internal detail of the figure. Thus although the technique

is essentially one of incision, the effect produced is akin to

shallow bas-relief, with a maximum depth of 3-4mm below the

dressed surface, cf OR 1003,

Information from Orkney SMR (RGL) May 86.


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