Reconstruction drawing – Neolithic girl and puppy

By Cecily Webster

Neolithic girl and dog. (Cecily Webster)
Neolithic girl and dog. (Cecily Webster)

Someone’s milk tooth was lost at the Ness, dropped or impulsively pushed into some gap of the internal furniture of Structure Eight. It made me feel like a reverse ghost, finding that, since I am sure the one who lost it wondered who would find it, back when they were alive and I was not.

The evidence, therefore, pointed to the presence of children among the attendees of ceremonies at the Ness – just as puppy teeth indicated young dogs (although the latter may have been from a neonatal offering as seen across the site, given the cluster of teeth in one grid area).

Canid colours in early domestication are well-documented, both from modern experiments with the domestication of foxes and the accounts of early explorers in New South Wales, who saw domesticated dingoes prior to the breakdown of Aboriginal societies under colonial pressure and associated plague.

Whilst wild-type colouration does persist among hunter-gatherer groups as a useful trait in hunting dogs, white patches and black-and-tan mutations show up early and would likely be allowed to persist among mostly sedentary agrarians. Although this colour form is genetically likely, it remains a guess since we lack a range of dog skulls among the finds to draw DNA evidence from and know nothing of any colour favouritism or taboos that might have led to breeding for one shade over another.

Although Neolithic dogs were long dissimilar to wolves at this point, in terms of skeletal size and shape, we don’t know if folded-ear mutations would be allowed to persist in the population, so this animal – probably a sheep- or cattle dog given its association with a heavily cattle-focused site – was left with pointed ears the better to hear any commands or whistles.

Since we have some textile work and the beginnings of woolly sheep breeds in evidence, the girl’s doe- or calfskin dress has a few decorative threads that may be woollen or plant fibre, and more wrapping the down-puff decorations into her hair.

Bucket detail. (Cecily Webster)
Bucket detail. (Cecily Webster)

There is some simple braiding on her belt. It is possible her mother would have a beaded or elaborately woven version that the child’s imitates without endangering such treasures of time and effort. She also has a necklace of large stone beads, intermittently popular throughout the period, and a string of twig-charms at her hip resembling those of other far Northern societies, ensuring her safety and connection to her ancestors at this ceremonial site.

She wears no shoes, as it is not yet cold enough for them to be needed.

Her dress is of a simple, loose cut, so that sleeves might be rolled and it might be belted differently as she grows, becoming a tunic when she is closer to adulthood and thresholds of menarche or marriage that might require new fancy clothing. The bottom is fringed more by habit than necessity, but even special clothes for Ness events would carry through some elements of practicality.

The colour patterns on the dress are entirely made up, largely on an aesthetic basis.

The cup-and-ring marked stone from Structure Ten. (Antonia Thomas)
The ‘Brodgar Eye’ – a cup-and-ring marked stone from Structure Ten. (Antonia Thomas)

Red is often considered a masculine colour and perhaps would not be on a female child’s garments at all if the Ness people considered children to be gendered beings at that age.

Or perhaps its presence here, over the child’s main body, would be an explicit indication of unformed and uncertain womanhood (the modern rigid binary system of gender is unusual in terms of world history. Should the girl turn out to be other than a woman in adulthood it is likely there would have been a simple social mechanism to allow him/them to enter grown life as such).

The triangular patterns are inspired by the rock art, and the lines along the arm will lead down to joint marks now probably more tradition or superstition than active acknowledgement of kinship to hunted animal spirits that might be butchered.

Her little birchbark bucket is clay-caulked with the pretty yellow used for Ness flooring and painted with designs resembling the “Brodgar Eye” in case it should have to carry water for anything sacred on the site. The plucked reeds are for a weaving lesson.

The doorway bears a very vague resemblance to a later phase of Structure Twelve, but I had no reference on hand and so must ask that you consider it a generic background.

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