Virtually palpate Neolithic Scottish balls

About 525 intricately carved stone balls from the Late Stone Age have been found in northern Europe, almost all of them in Scotland, a few in England, the Orkney Islands, Ireland and Norway. These balls have stymied antiquarians and archaeologists since they were first discovered two centuries ago. They come in a variety of designs, some with abstract carved reliefs, some carved into curious shapes, and their purpose or purposes have yet to be divined. Researchers have hypothesized that they could have been weapons like maceheads or sling projectiles, weights and measures, or symbols of power with religious significance as many of the carvings — circles, spirals, patterns of straight lines — have also been found carved on tombs.

Most of the Scottish balls were found in Aberdeenshire, including the most famous of them all, the Towie ball. It was discovered when a drain was dug near the village of Towie in or before 1860. Made of a hard black stone, the Towie ball has four discs, three of them carved with spirals and wedges, the last left blank. It is considered one of the finest examples of Neolithic art known.

Of the hundreds of Neolithic carved balls found in Scotland and the Orkneys, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has around 140 of them in its collection, the Towie ball among them. Very few of them are on display, however. The museum is making up for this by creating 3D models of 60 of its Neolithic balls and posting them online so that anybody with an Internet connection can see them in far greater detail than they ever could in person.

These models were made using photogrammetry, which uses around 150-200 images of each artifact to produce an exceptionally high-resolution 3D model. The resolution allows you to examine and appreciate these artifacts in unprecedented detail. Indeed, the model of one carved stone ball (X.AS 90) revealed traces of fine concentric circles on one projecting knob that had never been recorded before, despite the artifact having been in the museum for more than 100 years and examined by dozens of scholars. Traces of decoration and working are particularly clear in ‘matcap’ mode, which makes the artifact look like shiny metal, emphasising any irregularities in the surface.

The high resolution has also revealed evidence of how the balls were carved. Several of them show that the design changed as the balls were shaped, perhaps over the course of years of work. They are all relatively regular in dimension, a convenient size that would fit in one hand. It’s likely the stone carver held them in one hand and chipped or chiseled them with harder stone tools in their other hand.

You can examine this remarkable collection of Neolithic Scottish balls one after the other on this page. You can kick things off taking a look at a small group of them and once you get the feel of them, virtually palpate them all, starting with the exceptional Towie ball.

6 thoughts on “Virtually palpate Neolithic Scottish balls

  1. I always find it interesting how such objects, so well worked and valued, end up ‘lost’ in the soil, as grave goods or perhaps just forgotten.

    My question is whether they have found any broken ones? If used as a weapon then one would expect one to turn up fractured in some dig. If used as a weight for a loom, then some should appear under the ruins of buildings in some kind of context.

  2. I always wonder if these are craft advertising of sorts, easily portable but showing off your skill to people who may be looking for the skills of an accomplished worker in stone. Failing that the last resort of โ€œritualโ€ ๐Ÿ˜€

  3. Money ?

    … ๐Ÿ‚๐Ÿ‚ ๐Ÿ‚๐Ÿ‚ ๐Ÿ‚ “Mac Neo Lithicum for 5 North Devon* –COWS– payable by 24 knobs on two petrospheres on the next lunar eclipse to Scrouge Mc Stoneage.”


    ๐Ÿ‚ ๐Ÿ‚ ๐Ÿ‚ ๐Ÿ‚ ๐Ÿ‚
    (*) “The Devon cattle, or North Devon cattle, to distinguish it from the South Devon breed, is one of the oldest beef breeds in existence today. In fact, some authorities consider the Devon’s origin to be prehistoric, the assumption being that the breed descended directly from Bos lonqifrons, the smaller type of aboriginal cattle in Britain. According to offical reference material compiled by the Devon Cattle Breeders Society, Somerset, England; Devon Cattle – The Red Rubies, it appears that the North Devon may have contributed to the Hereford and other British breeds. Others tend to believe that South Devon cattle evolved from the large red cattle of Normandy which were imported to England later, i.e. at the time of the Norman invasion. The native home of the Devon is in southwest England, primarily in the counties of Devon, Somerset, Cornwall, and Dorset.”

  4. I’ve recently attended a History of archives course. Among the pre-writing archives, they somehow remind me of tokens and bullae, used especially in the Middle East between 8000-3000 a.C. to represent different kinds of goods (cattle, cereals…): a sort of accounting records (and considered as progenitors of clay tablets).

  5. Palm sized amulets which are round-ish, made from stone, can be seen in the Natural Prehistory Museum in Les Eyzies, France, next to the Hotel Cro Magnon.
    These carved stones were often images of women with pregnant bellies.
    Viewing them from an artistโ€™s eye, it is easy to imagine wanting to carve something that sized and making it beautiful.
    They are portable and like a โ€œpocket rockโ€ can be comforting in the hand. The images of the women must have been a reminder of home, if out hunting.

    There is an abundance of evidence of early cross channel influence if you look at the stone monuments in Carnac, France.

    Once the Scottish fired stones were in use for cooking stones, not dissimilar to Native American use of cooking stones, it isnโ€™t a leap to then make them decorative as well.
    The use would then follow after the objects were made, not prior.
    People like to make things, then use them. They donโ€™t always make them specifically for a purpose. They play with materials and things get made and refined and changed and borrowed and refined.

    Just yesterday I was trying to clean out a garden bed of dried long leaf foliage. As I pulled the leaves out I casually thought, โ€œI could braid them.โ€
    I ended up with a garland, then turned it into a wreath. Didnโ€™t end up finishing garden work, but have a nice unexpected wreath.

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