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.